Deadpool, false alarms and free movies

I saw Deadpool last night. I knew just enough about the character and movie to properly calibrate my expectations (vulgar, gory over-the-top violence, irreverent) and was pleased to find the movie was, in its own vulgar, gory and irreverent way, quite charming and at times pretty funny. Ryan Reynolds obviously has affection for the character/material and had a great time making the film–and it shows. As a bonus, you get to see him nude. As a special bonus, you even get to see his naughty bits. As penance for this, you see them after he has been transformed into a hideously ugly mutant.

About a quarter of the way through the movie a pair of small white lights began flashing, one on either side of the movie screen. It seemed like an alarm of some kind. Presumably they don’t have real alarms (the kind that pierce ear drums) to prevent that whole “yelling fire’ in a theater effect. I ignored it for a bit and then Nic finally said we should check it out so we went to the lobby and immediately got word that it was a fire alarm, but a false one. We returned to our seats and the lights kept flashing, which was more annoying now that we knew there was no inferno imminent.

A few minutes later a pair of employees came in and one gamely tried talking over the movie’s audio (Deadpool is not a film that employs subtlety in its audio–or any other part) and we got the gist: an apology for the alarm and an offer for a full refund or free pass.

After they left the film suddenly froze. It’s a digital projector so I’m wondering if the hard drive crashed. Would we get to see the world’s largest BSOD? No, it turned out they were setting the movie back to just before the disruption. I actually caught a piece of dialogue I had missed the first time.

When the movie ended we filed past someone who did indeed give us a pair of free passes (good until December 31, 2017, so good for the release of Episode VIII). We’ll likely use them for Zootopia, one of those anthropomorphic Disney moves that looks way better in the previews than it has any right to.

Overall, the disruption was relatively minor, didn’t detract from the experience (Deadpool is pretty much the perfect movie to experience a false fire alarm in) and we got a free movie out of it. I rate the evening 6 out of 7 Ryan Reynold’s fourth wall-breaking comments.

Movie review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Hey, there’s a new Star Wars movie out. You may have heard about it, possibly.

Released twelve days ago, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has already made over $600 million domestically. Even taking into account ticket price inflation, that’s an impressive figure. Ten years after Lucas wrapped up his prequel trilogy with Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, there’s apparently quite an appetite for more Star Wars movies.

I’m not going to ramble on since the Internet is already stuffed to the gills with reviews of the movie, but I will offer a few of my own thoughts.

I saw the original Star Wars when I was 12 years old. It was magical and awesome. I’d never seen a movie like it before. When Return of the Jedi came out in 1983 I paid to see it four times, something I’d never done before and have never done again since. I loved Star Wars and its flaws and imperfections didn’t bother me in the slightest, even as I acknowledged them.

When Lucas decided to make Episodes I-III I was excited. I’d have preferred Episodes VII-IX since we already knew Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, but still, new Star Wars!

As it turned out, whatever Lucas captured for the original three movies largely eluded him for the prequels, which were flat, poorly-directed, bloated with overly busy effects, featured embarrassing fan service and had one of the worst movie romances ever.

The biggest criticism I might level at The Force Awakens is that it largely uses the template of the first movie, swapping in new characters for the same general roles. But this is a minor nit, because it is done well and serves as a way to relaunch the movie series, not just for people who didn’t grow up with the original trilogy, but especially for those who did.

I suspected J.J. Abrams would be a better fit for Star Wars than Star Trek and he is. Reining in his excesses, he ably directs a cast that is diverse, smart and appealing. The script is rather sharp for a Star Wars film. The whole thing moves relentlessly, but finds the right places to breathe before picking up the action again. The fan service is tolerable–in stark contrast to what Abrams did in Star Trek–and Harrison Ford, who plays a surprisingly large part in the film, perfectly recaptures the character of Han Solo. And BB-8 is adorable.

Really, the major achievement here–apart from the stellar work done by the young cast that will carry the series forward–is that this feels like a Star Wars film in a way the prequels never really did. It’s ironic that it took people other than Lucas to rediscover and recapture what made the original trilogy work so well.

Now I just have to wait impatiently for Episode VIII.

Movie review: The Martian

I don’t review movies much anymore but I’m offering a quick one for The Martian:

Go see it.

Based on the self-published book of the same name, this is a smart, funny and even touching movie that is grounded in believable science, telling the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars and the effort to rescue him. The cast is diverse and enjoyable, the script respects the intelligence of the audience and the visuals are as lush as you’d expect in a Ridley Scott film.

I can now forgive Scott for Prometheus.

Movie review: Oz the Great and Powerful

Nic and I wanted to go watch some mindless spectacle so we settled on Oz the Great and Powerful. This is a great example of a movie filled with CGI for its own sake. So much of the movie looked fake–deliberately so in the case of the backgrounds, which were callouts to the look of the original Wizard of Oz–and was distracting because of it. Just because you can CGI a bunch of butterflies doesn’t mean you should.

James Franco was okay as Oz but lacks the presence the role needs. When he smiles he looks like a goofy kid, not an oily con man. Michelle Williams did what she could with the role of Glinda but had weird eye makeup or something that made it look like she was always on the verge of weeping. Plus I’d just seen her again in Brokeback Mountain and was half-expecting Ennis to show up and ask her how she could afford that g-damn fancy dress she was wearing.

The battle between Evanora and Glinda at the end of the movie was wholly unnecessary and brought to mind the Gandalf/Saruman fight–not a flattering comparison. And Evanora obviously went to the Emperor Palpatine School of Discipline.

The flying monkeys were baboons and didn’t look as scary as Zach Braff (human or monkey form). Disappointing.

Overall I found it mediocre but not entirely objectionable, like eating a bag of chips that aren’t your favorite flavor. You’d miss nothing by waiting to catch it on video.

It made $80 million this weekend.

Not so hot wheels

I’ve now watched a good portion of Cars and I still can’t get past the concept. I can accept talking fish, rats, ants and toys but for some reason talking cars stretch credibility too much. Maybe because the talking animals and toys still exist in a human world, whereas the cars exist in a bizarro world where they stand in place of humans. It begs obvious questions like ‘Where do baby cars come from?”

And I don’t want to know the answer.

Reviews: Thor and X-Men: First Class

I freely admit that when I go out to see a movie, it’s because I want to see it on a freaking huge screen to better appreciate the spectacle of sound and light being presented. This means when I’m seeing a movie during the summer it ain’t gonna be an arthouse film. This year I’ve started with two superhero movies, both from the Marvel universe.

Thor

I know little about Thor the comic (comic book, that is, not stand-up comic, though that itself is an interesting concept). I know he’s some sort of viking dude with a hammer and that’s about it. The movie fleshes out his origin story, presenting Thor as a reckless warmonger lusting for blood with little thought to the consequence. A heavily made-up Anthony Hopkins plays his father who banishes him to Earth for being such a reckless boob (Thor lives on a snazzy viking planet and they have some kind of wormhole thingie that can shoot them hither and yonder across the galaxy. Nerds everywhere are cringing at my inability to give any of this stuff its proper names). Thor’s arrival is heralded by him getting hit by a van. This turns out to be a literal running gag. Over the course of the movie Thor goes through a character arc of sorts, which kind of surprised me, given I was mostly expecting lots of fighting and special effects (and there is plenty of both), turning into a wiser, more mellow kind of dude who is fit to be king, unlike his rat brother Loki, who plots to exterminate their enemies, Thor, dad and pretty much anyone who gets in his way.

Good triumph over evil in the end, of course, and Loki gets away with a Vader-esque escape, so he’s primed to be a main bad guy in The Avengers movie — and that’s what Thor feels like, a prequel of sorts to The Avengers, introducing Thor. But it works for what it is. Kenneth Branagh (!) keeps the action moving and gives the characters enough time to catch their collective breath and flesh out scenes that would otherwise feel like perfunctory bits between explosions. The off-kilter camera angles often used to establish shots on Earth might recall the same trick being used on the campy Batman series from the 1960s but here it works as an effective way to illustrate the fish-out-of-water nature of Thor’s presence on the planet.

Chris Hemsworth appears to have had a great time playing the title character and is thoroughly enjoyable as he alternates between bumbling about powerless on Earth and swaggering and swinging the hammer with gusto about on his home planet of Asgard. For some reason I didn’t even recognize Natalie Portman until well into the movie. Her plucky scientist Jane Foster is fairly rote and she does little to distinguish the role but she’s not bad, either and this will certainly look better on her resume than Your Highness. Tom Hiddlestone does a nice job with Loki, at turns menacing and slightly campy.

The effects are dazzling and well-rendered and the action is plentiful and satisfying. Comic book movies don’t have a very high bar to reach to be considered decent. After all, Electra and Daredevil both got greenlit and they’ve made two Fantastic Four movies, so by my account, Thor comes off quite well. A solid romp, I rate it 3.5 mystical hammers out of 5.

X-Men: First Class

After the fairly dismal X-Men 3: Everyone Dies and an okay-but-not great Wolverine movie, the powers-that-be at Marvel apparently decided it was time to reboot the franchise by going the prequel route and so we find X-Men: First Class set in 1962 and laying out the origins of the merry band of mutants led by Professor Xavier. The film plays up the early 60s angle right down to making the Cuban missile crisis the centerpiece of the story but never veers into Austin Powers territory in terms of costumes or design. In fact, there are a few fashion anachronisms, mostly with some hairstyles looking a bit too modern.

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are both well-cast as the younger Xavier and Magneto, respectively. While the film shows Magneto’s transformation into a ‘bad guy’, Xavier is given a completely different take as a sex-loving, beer-swilling kinda guy (who still has a highly developed moral code that causes him to ultimately part ways with Magneto).

I don’t have any serious coimplaints about the movie. It moves along well and although the supporting cast don’t get a lot of time to explore their characters, they all handle themselves well. It did seem Angel was given no real motivation to join with evil mutant Sebastian Shaw and I suspect the many-credited writers may have had something in there at some point that got cut. And speaking of Shaw, I’m unsure what to make of Kevin Bacon as the chief bad guy. I actually didn’t recognize him in the 1944 scenes where he appears as a Nazi doctor. Once he became Evil Kevin Bacon in 1962 I was less convinced because, you know…Kevin Bacon. They should have given him a big villainous mustache or something.

I’m usually not big on reboots, remakes or prequels but X-Men: First Class actually pulls off the origin story with intelligence, flair and, well, class. If the film does well, expect to see X-Men: Second Class get the go-ahead. Okay, maybe not with that title. X-Men: Top of Class? X-Men: Still Classy? They had four people credited on the screenplay, they can throw a couple of writers at coming up with a decent name for a sequel.

Back to the Future 26 years later: It still works

I watched Back to the Future today for the first time in many years and it still holds up well. The cast, anchored by the amazingly weird Crispin Glover, is terrific and the story puts all the pieces together surprisingly well for a time travel plot. It helps that it’s a comedy and the science fiction stuff can be hand-waved as needed (moreso than normal).

The cutest part, of course, is how quaint the present-day setting of 1985 looks now. Michael J. Fox wears suspenders without irony. The woman have hair that towers like skyscrapers. Music is played on cassettes!

Definitely worth catching again if it happens to be on TV.

Star Trekpalooza (with bonus Forbidden Planet)

Over the weekend I had a rare chance to watch several back to back Star Trek: Next Gen movies as part of some Space network marathon and it has made me revise my opinions of several.

I saw the last segment of Insurrection and all of Generations, First Contact and Nemesis. Here are my new and improved opinions:

First Contact: This is still easily the best of the Next Gen movies. Yes, the concept of a Borg Queen is inconsistent, Crusher gets pushed into the background in favor of Alfre Woodard’s character and it combines two of the most tired tropes in Star Trek — saving Earth and time travel. But thanks to a lithe script, some excellent set pieces and tight performances by the cast, it all holds together and becomes more than the sum of its proverbial parts.

Insurrection: I only caught the last few scenes and it reminded me of what a dull and plodding movie it is. They somehow managed to make the action sequences limp and lifeless despite having the cool new Enterprise tooling around. Going from First Contact to this was a huge letdown. Even as a TV episode, Insurrection wouldn’t rank among the better ones, with its ‘simple folk on Amish planet’ plotline and not giving a damn if they blew the whole thing up.

Generations still comes off as a disjointed narrative, with too many different threads, many of them feeling only loosely connected to each other. The whole ‘Picard’s family dies in a fire’ (a fire? Really? In a time where they brag about no disease or poverty they somehow still manage to have fires that still burn down houses and kill people? Okay!) was utterly unnecessary and forced Patrick Stewart to spend a large amount of the film moping around. But the writers apparently couldn’t come up with anything better for Picard in the Nexus than ‘a family of mawkish, Stepford-style children dressed as if they were from the late 19th century so the tragedy of his real family was deemed necessary. When Picard looks out a window of his imaginary Nexus home and says, “This can’t be real” it’s a bit of a “Well, duh” moment. Which also demonstrates how hanging the whole movie on the Nexus was dumb to begin with. The plotholes in this movie are at least Galaxy class in size. Here’s just one, though: If Picard was able to leave the Nexus at any point in time, why did he not leave when Soren could be safely apprehended aboard a ship instead of mere minutes before he blows up an entire star? Because that wouldn’t have given us a scene of Kirk falling down and dying. Yes, Kirk’s death comes at the, er, hands of a rogue walkway that collapses. How noble!

Nemesis: I have always thought of this as being the worst of the Next Gen movies because of the poor matte effects, the overall cheap look of the film, the silly dune buggy sequence and the unnecessary and unconvincing sacrifice of Data as an attempt to wring a few tears from long-time fans (not to mention the cop-out of having B4 suddenly become more Data-like at the end). However, while all of these flaws are still present, none of them bothered me the same way they did back when I saw this in the theater when it came out in 2002. The story stays focused on the silly main plot (a lot of nonsense about a less-than-believable evil clone of Picard wanting to, uh, destroy the Earth or something for reasons that are never entirely clear, but which I can best surmise as “So I will be famous!”) and the pace keeps moving forward. In the end I have to say I found Nemesis more interesting than Insurrection, if not actually better, so I think I’ll now put it slightly above Insurrection in my list of Next Gen movies. My new ranking is thus:

1.First Contact
2. Generations
3. Nemesis
4. Insurrection

The gap between #1 and #2 is pretty big. The gap between #2 and #3 is smaller, while the space (ho ho) between #3 and #4 is rather small.

It’s too bad that the Next Gen cast didn’t get a decent batch of movies for their theatrical run. When most of your efforts rank about as highly as Star Trek V, it ain’t good.

***

I also managed to catch most of Forbidden Planet on AMC, which I’ve somehow never see before. It’s a bit of a jolt to see a young Leslie Nielson playing it straight as the commander of a military force that travels on a spaceship that looks strangely like a UFO. Overall I enjoyed it and it reminded me of how the pacing and plot sensibilities of movies have changed so much in the last 50 years. Forbidden Planet has its action but most of the film is simply talking or even one character demonstrating things to another. The enemy for the most part is literally unseen and the ending is not based on action but a psychological twist. There is allegedly a remake in the works (IMDB lists it as a 2013 project) and I can imagine the bigger, louder lasers already, the relatively simple ending being drawn out into a huge firefight and several unnecessary subplots tacked on. We need more science fiction movies that are about ideas and not just action. I expect the worst.

Finally, I caught the first 20 minutes or so of Fantastic Voyage. They emphasized several times that the shrinking process could only last 60 minutes maximum and then went through multiple phases post-shrinking of the sub and crew before finally injecting them into the guy’s body. I was expecting the project lead to send them a wireless message (yes, despite having all of this very fancy tech, they could only communicate through Morse code) telling them that they only had five minutes to complete the actual operation. Still, I love the tone of the movie, which can be described as serious-but-fun.

Review: Strong and Silent Types (VQFF)

This year I’ve only managed to see one film at the VQFF but it’s a collection of five shorts, so that makes it feel like I’ve seen a lot more.

Strong and Silent Types also could have been called Those Crazy Gay Drunks as it seemed like every other character was an alcoholic. Is there something I don’t know about gay men? Spoilers ahoy below!

In order:

Last Call. This is the one high-concept piece in which an alcoholic (!) gay man seeks to reconcile with the guy who left him some time before. He manages to convince the ex to meet him, drives off and promptly gets into some kind of horrible accident (that you don’t actually see). Instead of ending up under a sheet at the local morgue, Gavin finds himself in a bar that is empty save for one of those wise older women that exist mainly as supporting characters in morality tales. She pours him three shots, which he refuses as he no longer drinks. She insists and each drink causes him to flashback to key moments in his relationship with Mark, the acoustic guitar-playing, singing and wanting-to-adopt-a-child guy he used to be with. They are set to adopt but Gavin is, well, a drunk. Instead they break up.

Gavin laments to his mystic barkeep that it’s a shame fate had decided he was to end up dead after finally getting a chance to meet with David again (by this time he realizes the bar is some kind of way-point on his journey to the afterlife). She assures him that she can undo the accident if he drinks the last shot, which has the look of fresh Windex. He gulps it down and finds himself back in the car. He heads off to meet Mark but as he pulls up he sees his ex kissing another guy and handing off a small child to him. It’s clear that Mark has taken his pale blue Japanese guitar and started making music with someone else. Gavin then finds himself back at the bar where the woman, who confesses she has never been in love, and thus has no particular insights to offer, reveals that well, maybe you really are dead after all. Oops, my bad! But go on and leave the bar and get ready for the afterlife.

The afterlife turns out to be a really bright dock on the ocean with a bench where Mark is waiting with guitar. The End.

If you’re scratching your head at this point, you’re probably not alone. Even given its Twilight Zone pedigree, the story doesn’t make much sense. Feeding booze to a recovering alcoholic should serve some purpose beyond a plot device but nope, that’s all it is. The wise old woman turns out to not be very wise. In fact, she’s not really much more insightful than an eggplant sitting on the counter would have been. At least if the barkeep had been young and good-looking there would have been some eye candy. The ‘you’re not really dead — oh, wait, yes you are!’ seemed pointless but mostly I’m baffled by the ending, which seems to suggest that the afterlife is a fantasy world where you get exactly what you want. I suppose there’s an undeniable appeal there but Gavin would presumably know that Mark was really back on Earth boffing his new BF and raising the son he was too drunk to commit to having. That might prove a bit distracting in fantasyland. Thumbs sideways.

Little Love. This is a simple story of cheaters and their cheatin’ ways. It starts with three friends, two of whom are a couple. One half of the couple flies off on a trip, the hot Latino other half invites the mutual friend over and they boff in an energetic sex scene. The boring other half of the couple comes back, finds out and is all “I trusted you!” and then it’s over. That’s really it. There is no particular insight offered here and the piece is so short (10 minutes) that there’s no room for any kind of character growth or development. The message seems to be ‘don’t cheat on your friend with his super-hot Latino boyfriend’. Good advice! The worst part of this short film, apart from some stilted dialogue and somewhat wooden performances (except in bed, oddly enough) is the poignant piano or PP as I call it. This is heard throughout most of the shorts and is used to telegraph emotional moments, of which there are many, judging from the virtual poignant piano concertos taking place. You can hear a lot of the PP in the trailer for the film. At least there are no alcoholics in this short.

Disarm. A 30-something guy arranges to meet a 20-something guy through an online hookup site but instead of having sex, they engage in a wide-ranging conversation about sex, being gay, childhood, drinking and more. The 18-minute short is a character study and much of it a study of contrasts — the bitter older man still recovering from the wounds of his childhood and growing up gay, set against the glib young man who resolutely declares how masculine he is and how much he hates ‘fems’. They come to verbal blows, with the older man telling the young man that he both sounds and walks like a gay man — something the younger man obviously takes to heart as he ‘adjusts’ his stride after leaving the older man’s apartment. At times amusing and revealing, this is one of the stronger shorts in the presentation.

Promise. Oof. This one features an alcoholic, poignant piano, two essentially unlikable characters, a few unintentionally funny lines and a simulated rape. And it’s a comedy.

Just kidding about the comedy part.

This is a dour drama about a relationship falling apart. Stu (alcoholic) and Chris are about to get married but Stu has broken the somewhat arbitrary rules of their premarital open relationship by ‘double-dipping’ with another man by going back to him for another round of lovin’. This results in a lot of yelling, accusations both real and imagined and ends with Chris pulling off Stu’s clothes, throwing him on their bed and raping him over Stu’s loud and persistent protests. The film ends the next morning with the two of them meeting in the hallway of their home, both dressed for the wedding, though it is deliberately left as an open question of whether they will go through with the ceremony or not. “We have to,” Stu protests the night before, “all those people are showing up!” While the actors here are mostly fine, they are given dialogue that is pretty stiff at time and really, both of them come off as jerks you’d be happy not knowing, so I’m not sure what the point of the film was, except to perhaps show that not all gay men are witty and carefree like on Will & Grace. This may have worked better as a feature-length piece where the characters could have been fleshed out more. Hard to recommend.

Professor Godoy. The lightest and most daring short comes from Brazil. It features a classic premise, succinctly summed up by Van Halen as ‘hot for teacher’. In this case the teacher is a stern and exacting math professor at a private school, who tells us in the narration that he has always counted the exact number of steps to the school where he teaches ‘brats’ who ‘never grow older’ while he does. His dull routines change when one of his students, a young man named Felipe, starts including cryptic math-themed notes with his assignments that indicate an attraction to the professor. Godoy is initially repulsed, and rebuffs the attempts, until one night he finds himself waking up from a wet dream about Felipe. Awkward.

Even more awkward, Felipe shows up at Godoy’s home and gives him a slip of paper with an address on it, telling him to meet him in two hours (it’s okay, Felipe explains, they are no longer in school). Godoy says he will do no such thing and of course ends up sitting on a park bench at the appointed time. Felipe arrives and the film ends with a silent montage of the two on the bench, telling stories and laughing.

While the subject is provocative, the writer-director (who was at the screening and took questions after) plays it fairly safe — there is no sex depicted, not even touching or an errant kiss. Even at the end it’s ambiguous what sort of relationship the two men will have. Still, the actors are natural and the presentation is almost light enough that one might be inclined to call it innocent, if not for the actual subject matter. The director, Gui Ashcar, admitted in the Q&A after that the fantasy sequence — which consists of the two alone in the classroom, each at their desks and with Felipe advancing through a sequence of blackouts, toward Godoy — was originally meant to be less a fantasy and more explicit but as they were filming in an actual school, there was pressure to keep things a little more PG-rated. Another mark in the film’s favor is the beautiful cinematography, easily the best of all the short features. This was perhaps the only one to actually have the imprint of a director interested in telling a story, not simply teaching a lesson. Ultimately a pleasant diversion but not much more. Still, thumbs up.

Review: Pandorum

I rented Pandorum because I knew it was a “scary spaceship movie” like Event Horizon. I didn’t know any of the details about what made it scary. I liked going in without really knowing anything about it.

This review contains spoilers, so skip to the last paragraph if you just want my final take on the movie.

It turns out that Pandorum is not actually scary, working more as a mystery and then as both an action and psychological thriller. The story begins with two crew members waking up from hypersleep on a massive spaceship that appears to be partially disabled. Intermittent rumblings signal the ship’s reactor getting ready to shut down, giving the movie its main plot point as they characters race to get to the reactor to reset it. Along the way they discover what the ship’s mission was, who they are and what ‘pandorum’ is — the madness that grips some people after extended periods of hypersleep.

You can see where this is going.

I found Pandorum to be likable enough but unremarkable. It moved along at a decent pace and there was nothing horrible about it, but also nothing especially noteworthy, either. It’s the kind of film that you start poking holes in immediately after viewing. Dennis Quaid continues the trend toward playing crazy as he ages and I’ll admit he does a pretty good job of it. Ben Foster, who plays the engineer, brings a grounded quality to Bower that I enjoyed, especially compared to the other supporting characters, all of whom are pretty stock — the beautiful but dangerous woman, the eccentric but dangerous older man, the fierce and dangerous younger man (who bafflingly speaks a different language than the other characters, for no reason I could determine), the young, insane and hey, dangerous! man. You get the idea.

It turns out that these people are on the Elysium, a colony ship carrying tens of thousands of people to the Earth-like planet Tanis some 123 years away. The stakes are raised by two factors: the discovery that Earth somehow went kablooey shortly after Elysium took off and at some point in its voyage something went horribly wrong, leading to the ship being invaded by vicious humanoid mutants who dress like Mad Max extras and carry around blue flashlights that they enjoy waving around ominously as they scuttle down hallways. At first the mutants are presented in fleeting glimpses, flashes of teeth and sinewy limbs lashing out. Since they are the antagonists of the story, this doesn’t continue and as they are revealed more in full and further explained as being mutated humans from the ship itself, the menace is completely bled out of their presence. The other primary source of tension in the film

Several times the characters comment on the massive size of the ship yet the film never adequately conveys this, as the darkly-lit corridors and tunnels the characters spend most of their time running down are very generic. You do get a few moments where larger spaces are shown but they feel disconnected from the rest of the design. Naturally, there are the obligatory chambers with water pouring down for no reason, as established in Alien over 30 years ago. The worst offender design-wise is the reactor room showcased in the movie’s penultimate scene. Not only does it improbably serve as the breeding ground for the mutants, its design is straight out of the original Star Wars, with Ben Foster filling in the Obi Wan Kenobi role as he walks on a narrow gangway out to the reactor controls. Naturally there are no handrails of any sort on this narrow gangway and naturally the gangway starts to collapse as soon as he starts walking across it, all the better to slide off into the giant mass o’ mutants sleeping below. As he gingerly makes his way out of the slithering mass of very mean things, the dangerous some-other-language man suddenly drops his flashlight, its clanging causing all of the mutants to wake up. I’d think a little metal tube clanging off a pipe wouldn’t seem like much in the bowels of a giant nuclear reactor (that causes the entire ship to shudder violently from time to time) but these mutants are very sensitive to plot-driven sound effects.

Once the reactor is fired up in the nick of time, a number of mutants are shown being obliterated by it. Somehow the good guys are impervious to this, even though they are clearly in the same space as the mutants. No bother. Time to reunite with Dennis “crazy eyes” Quaid for the final confrontation on the bridge. The pandorum-fueled struggle here results in the glass being cracked. One might hope that an interstellar ship carrying the last hope for humanity on a trip over 100 years in length would have invested in at least double-glazed windows but apparently not. Failing that, an emergency bulkhead would seal the bridge off from the rest of the ship. Nope. Instead a hull breach emergency is declared. Time to evacuate! In the movie’s final twist, it is revealed that the Elysium is actually already on Tanis, sitting partially submerged in an ocean off the coast of some landmass. How it managed to land in the ocean fully intact and without any of its windows breaking is not explained.

The film ends with Bower and Nadia, the dangerous woman/botanist escaping to the surface in a life pod, tasked with repopulating the human species. Get to work, kids! Okay, other pods are seen popping onto the surface of the ocean and the end card indicates a population of 1,213.

Pandorum isn’t a bad movie but it’s hard to recommend because there is nothing about it that stands out. If you’re hankering for a competently-made science fiction thriller it’s entirely serviceable, otherwise I’d recommend something a little more thoughtful, like Sunshine.

Reviews: Toy Story 3, Inception and The Last Airbender

This summer has been kind of blah for movies so far but on the plus side, it makes for a happier wallet. Here are a few more reviews of what I’ve seen lately.

Toy Story 3
I saw this shortly after it opened in June (blessedly, not the 3D version that asks you to mortgage your home to pay and makes you wear a pair of glasses over your own glasses in order to get a dimmer, slightly unfocused version of the movie) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Why did I wait a month before writing a review? Because as much as I like Toy Story 3, it’s easily forgotten. In what is assumed to be the final arc for the characters, the plot has Andy heading off to college, with all of the toys but Woody to be stowed in his parents’ attic for safekeeping. Woody is to accompany him to college, out of sentiment. Thanks to a mix-up the toys instead end up in a daycare facility, where they are beset upon by ‘age-inappropriate’ kids who mangle, torture and mutilate them in that cheerful way little kids do.

Making matters worse is a teddy bear kingpin who presents a warm smile but runs the daycare like an internment camp. When Woody arrives to rescue the gang, the movie takes off, essentially becoming a prison break story.

One of the film’s highlights are the villainous henchmen who aid and abet Lotso the teddy bear. One is a freaky ‘realistic’ doll that silently lurches about on its stubby legs, a half-shut eye staring out of an otherwise vacant face. Another is one of those monkeys with cymbals that watches the many monitors of the daycare’s surveillance system, appropriately screeching and going berserk with the cymbals when the alert is sounded. That ought to have set up at least one kid in the audience for nightmares.

The action is brisk and there are some decent setpieces, though I found the Spanish Buzz Lightyear sequence merely amusing. The addition of Ken and Barbie works better than I thought it would, especially Ken being depicted as a vain, fashion-obsessed girlyman. The scene in the incinerator is surprisingly touching and the deus ex machina actually doesn’t feel cheap (it’s also foreshadowed quite openly for those paying attention).

The message of the movie — growing up, letting go, moving on — is presented gently and lovingly. But in the end, as pleasant and warm as Toy Story 3 is, it feels more like a confection, something to enjoy in the moment, not to savor afterward.

And that’s okay. Not every movie needs to be deep or make you think. Speaking of which…

Inception
Inception is Christopher Nolan’s first movie since The Dark Knight two years ago and it a real rarity: a brainy big budget science fiction film. Think about how many of those you can remember seeing.

To discuss the film in any detail would be impossible without spoilers all over the place but without spoiling too much, the story takes place in a world where people are able to invade the dreams of others, literally stealing their ideas from the sleeping and subconscious mind — a process known as extraction. Cobb, the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, assembles a team to work for a client that has come to him. Saito (Ken Watanabe) wants something a little different, though. Rather than an extraction, he wants Cobb and his team to plant an idea into the mind of the son and heir of a competing business owner in order to convince the son to break up his father’s empire and thus eliminating Saito’s main competition.

Planting an idea is an inception, not an extraction, something most of the characters believe is impossible. Cobb is not one of them and he has motivation for wanting to succeed — Saito has promised to clear the way for him to return to the US to be with his two children, as he is currently on the run as a fugitive, accused of a crime he says he didn’t commit.

We follow the characters down the proverbial rabbit hole, where the story plays out as a series of dreams within dreams within dreams. Nolan takes pains to explain all of the rules of this subconscious manipulation and in doing so reveals one of the weaknesses of the film: fairly heavy exposition. It’s not a deal breaker, however and apart from what I felt was some clunky dialogue early on, it’s blended in fairly believably as characters explaining things to others not ‘in the loop’.

Much like a movie about time travel, Inception fairly brgs you to look for plot holes after the fact, most obviously with the ending and final shot, which some may regard as brilliant, while others dismiss it as facile.

SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH

On reflection I think the final scene is a dream and not reality, mostly based on the children looking exactly as they did in Cobb’s dreams. Trying to invent a plausible reason for them being identical in age, wearing the same clothes and and even standing in the exact same spot in the yard is just too much. Cobb is caught in the limbo the film describes as the nether state where you cannot wake from a dream and risk scrambling your brain if you stay ‘down there’ too long. It is there, not in reality, that he is happily reunited with his children.

While all of the characters are good, I especially liked Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur, who operates with a steely precision, whether it’s fighting in a hotel hallway where gravity has suddenly gone askew or questioning Cobb’s mental state (a conflict between the characters is hinted at but never develops). DiCaprio is decent but not outstanding but this is a movie more about ideas rather than heart, so it’s not surprising that most of the characters exist to simply service the plot. We’re not here to observe any character arcs or growth, apart from Cobb’s and while that gives the film a bit of a detached feel, it’s not problematic.

With so much to chew over I have an urge to see Inception again. I’ll be interested to see if the audience in general shares that feeling or if it fades quickly in favor of the next moron movie. Definitely recommended.

The Last Airbender
I had the good sense not to see this but Nic didn’t! Read his review here. Currently tracking at 8% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Review: Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 is the first of the big summer releases for 2010 and has already made a zillion dollars in its opening weekend, as Box Office Mojo reports. I had not read any reviews before going in but from headlines and such the gist seemed to be “not as good as the first one”, which is probably not surprising, since the original was a lot better than many would have expected.

And I’d agree. It was fun, not as sharp as the first, but still very entertaining. Robert Downey Jr. continues to play the role of Tony Stark with perfect comic timing. The supporting cast is generally solid, although Rhodes, now played by Don Cheadle, seems a bit more straight-laced than when he was played by Terence Howard. Mickey Rourke is a hulking revenge-seeking Russian physicist, ex-Siberian prisoner and apparent master hacker, breaking encrypted systems with a few deft taps on a keyboard. Movie computers must use ‘password’ or ‘abc123’ as passwords or something. Sam Rockwell plays Justin Hammer as an evil buffoon, sort of the underachieving younger brother gone down the wrong path. While never generating any actual menace, he is regularly amusing (and annoying). Garry Shandling is brilliantly cast as a supercilious senator investigating the Iron Man and he clearly relished playing the acerbic character, sort of a callback to his Larry Sanders days, but even less likable (he is playing a politician, after all).

The story is pretty simple — bad guy seeks revenge on Iron Man — and the final mano-a-mano-a-mano battle ends rather abruptly, but things move along at a brisk pace and the cast seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves, so it’s hard not to get swept up in the fun.

The science, as always, is pure comic book (read: nonsensical) and people who pick it apart are missing the point by the proverbial country mile. It’s like attacking the accuracy of the doomsday scenario in 2012.

The effects are quite good, as one would expect, and there’s another teaser at the end of the credits, just as with the first movie. The credits, by the way, would have been shorter by listing the people who had not worked on the movie. Ay caramba, the size of the crew on the movie was bigger than Tony Stark’s ego.

Captain America’s shield had an awesome cameo.

Iron Man 2 is not a great movie, but it is great fun. Recommended.