The Titular Devil, With Hand

The Titular Devil, With Hand

Friday, December 13, 2013

My Desolation Of Smaug Review: Oh Smaug The Garrulous And Incompetent

Went to see a midnight show of the new Hobbit flick, Desolation of Smaug. Having read lots of reviews, I was really hoping the thing would be like the movie that so many reviewers claim to have seen; I'd much rather have a good Tolkien adaptation than another atrocious one. No such luck, however. Even though I was kinda going with the program for a while, I think I wound up hating this even more than I hated the first flick. The fact is, Jackson reserves almost all of the really stupid stuff for his final act, and when it arrives, it's mind-numbing, worse than anything in the first installment or his remake of Kong.

Right off the bat, I should establish that I'm inclined toward Tolkien purism, although if you follow this blog, you'd already know that. I think it's possible to improve on T's handling of some stuff, but...for the most part, you're better off sticking with his original approach. That was true of Jackson's LOTR movies, and it's triply true of his Hobbit films. He seems to have decided that he was the real driving force behind the first trilogy's success...he wasn't. Mostly, when he's adding his own material---and Smaug is practically all Jackson, with the original story as the merest outline---he injects very little but bathos, lousy characterization, and bombast. Have you ever seen Terry Gilliam's Baron Munchausen? Consider that bit where the dimwit actor begins that windbaggy speech about opening the gate, and then the Baron comes up and says, "No, no, all wrong...Open the GATE!" Well, Jackson is just like that actor, a doctrinaire hack, and if it turns out he's been hitting the nose-candy too, I won't be the least bit surprised.

Smaug opens well enough, cribbing some material from Unfinished Tales, Gandalf meeting Thorin in Bree and setting up the whole plot...I don't like Jackson's grubby version of Bree, but the scene worked well enough on its own terms. Then we skip to a year later, Thorin and company with Bilbo running from the CG orcs that were chasing them at the end of the first flick; as effects, the orcs are rather better than they were in the first outing...although Jackson still should've stuck to actual actors in makeup, as in the LOTR movies.

We get our first glimpse of Beorn, in bear-shape, although he looks about as much like a bear as Jackson's wargs looks like wolves, which is how they should look. The scene where Gandalf wheedles the dwarves into Beorn's protection simply gets chucked. Beorn in human form is a dodgy conception...he looks rather like a hirsute dirty Kevin's just strange. But we don't spend too much time with him. In fact,  unless there's some sort of big payoff with him at the battle of the Five Armies, it's hard to see why he's in the movie at all.

On to's all gnarly roots and scary forest cliche, whereas, in actuality, it should be a great big nasty black evergreen climax forest with virtually no undergrowth.  We don't get the  stream that puts Bombur to sleep and the other dwarves carrying him around, maybe mercifully so, given the quality of Jackson's dwarf humor...we do have the scene where Bilbo climbs up to take bearing and sees all the butterflies, and that's cool.

When he comes down, we jump right into the spider attack without sufficient buildup. That being said, the spider-fight itself  is my favorite action in the movie...I liked it better than the Shelob sequence in Return of the King, and the spider scene in Kong, which was my favorite part of that. Even so, Jackson's insistence on blurry monochromatic ring-o-vision whenever Bilbo puts on the ring partially hamstrings the beginning of the fight, because you just can't see anything very well. Then Jackson seems to reconsider, and he has Bilbo take off the ring for no reason. Just stupid. The same situation wrecks much of  his conversation with Smaug later on...but I digress.

Wood-elves Elves bail our protagonists out, but imprison them. Legolas is back, rather meaner than in the first trilogy...his father is Thranduil, (Lee Pace) who's rather a prick , but...I buy it. The big new addition is Tauriel, a buttkicking female elf played by Evangeline Liley, who all the reviewers are just wild about, even though she's just a ho-hum stereotype. A female warrior! Golly, we sure haven't been getting a ton of those lately, no sir. Compounding my disgust with my fellow critics is this crap they keep spouting about the lack of commanding female characters in Tolkien, as if he didn't come up with Galadriel or Luthien, or Eowyn. Tauriel is a lousy piece of work, and the people who thinks she's great should be forced to watch some Brigitte Lin movies like Swordsman 2 or Peking Opera Blues. It's possible to do this female warrior stuff well, but Jackson ain't the man for the job.

Making things vastly worse is the fact that Tauriel gets romantic over one of the dwarves, Kili. The scenes with them mooning over each other are the most chilling pieces of cinematic idiocy I've been subjected to recently, ill-written and amazingly mawkish. Every time that particular subplot raised its hideous head, I felt like I'd been prematurely consigned to a sodden adult diaper. Whew.

The underground elvish kingdom looks like a  theme park. There are many bridges and catwalks. As a matter of fact, you begin to notice after a while that it resembles the subterranean lair of the Goblin King in Part One. Later on, Dol Guldur is full of bridges and catwalks, and so's Laketown, and so is the cavernous interior of the Lonely Mountain. Frightfully monotonous. One of the things I loved about the first trilogy was the way they did a knockout job on Tolkien's settings; there's very little of that here. Even when they do follow his lead somewhat, they smother it in preposterous excess.

Speaking of excess, the sequence where the dwarves escape downstream  from the elves in barrels---with orcs shooting arrows at everyone---is one of the things that works relatively well in my opinion, and I wouldn't have thunk it. The whole thing is nonsensical; somehow the elves haven't even noticed that their woods have been infiltrated by the orcs, and the dwarves are floating in open barrels in rapids, and the barrels would've filled up in notime and sunk---but the special effects are surprisingly convincing, with really great water (where were these water-FX-honchos when Jackson did that ship-going-through-the-barrier wall garbage in Kong?), and there's loads of good violence.

But then we get to Bard, and Laketown, and the movie starts to sink and there aren't any lifeboats. I didn't quite realize it at the time, because I'd been informed that Smaug was tremendous, but no...the movie turns into a shit sandwich after the barrel chase. There's mucho wheel-spinning regarding the characterization of Bard, who will kill Smaug in Part Three, but really doesn't have much of a role in the book; punching up his part made sense. But Jackson serves up a whole uninteresting family for him, and has him being a quasi-rebel subverting the evil Master, and everything's way in excess of function, and grimy and greasy and fishy, and the dwarves sneak into Bard 's house through his toilet and...

I breathed a sigh of relief when we left Laketown.

But even when we get up to Erebor, we keep wandering back to Laketown, because Kili's been shot in the leg with an orc-arrow, and Thorin won't let him come to Erebor, and other dwarves stay behind because they're drunk, and orcs infiltrate Laketown, but Legolas and Tauriel are pursuing them, and there's a big stupid irelevant fight, and Tauriel and Kili moon at each other some more while she heals his leg...

Oh, and the Erebor stuff is also intercut with Gandalf sneaking into Dol Guldur and having an encounter with Sauron that doesn't work bigtime and won't have any real dramatic payoff in the third film...

At least there's isn't much with Radagast.

But on to the titular dragon.

You've been informed he's the greatest dragon in the history of film. Personally, I prefer the dragon in Dragonslayer. But Smaug is niftily voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, and he's a good special effect, although I thought the facial design verged on cartoony. All in all, if Jackson had simply stuck to the source material, the sequence would've been at least as good as the Gollum biz in Part One.

But Jackson lays waste to the conversation between Bilbo and Smaug. Wrecks it, destroys it. Deprives it of any sort of internal logic. After some impressive buildup involving lots of cascading treasure as Smaug wakes up, you have Bilbo putting on the ring, and ringo-vision ensues, and the whole opening of the conversation is in that, and it just isn't visually satisfactory. Then, a la the spider scene, Bilbo, for no reason at all, takes off the ring, the only thing keeping him invisible and alive. From that point it's a ton of talking-villain horsecrap, with Smaug going on and on, inventing reasons for why he shouldn't kill Bilbo at any given time. It's just effing, effing dumb.

But it's not as dumb as what follows.

Jackson, as I said, is a completely doctrinaire film-maker, and when he opted to turn Tolkien's one-volume kid's book into a three-part extravaganza, he felt compelled to inject a vast quantity of climactic loud and stupid into parts one and two, well, just got to. The end of the first Hobbit movie, with the tilting pine trees, was maybe the single worst part, and the climax of Smaug is the worst part of either movie so far. For some reason, after Bilbo's had his brush with the dragon, the dwarves decide they've got to rush off to "the dwarf forges" and do...something. Really, you can't tell at all what they've got in mind. There's an endless amount of running here and there, swinging on chains, sliding down slides, riding in mining-cars and on rivers of molten gold, screaming, and apparently fulfilling some sort of complicated plan (which couldn't have been agreed upon beforehand) to...

Run here and there, swing on chains, slide down slides, ride in mining-cars and on rivers of molten gold, and...pour an instantly liquid giant golden dwarf-statue onto Smaug, whom it has no effect upon, and there wouldn't be any reason why anyone would think it would anyway. He starts to fly off to Erebor, acting like he's dangerous, but he's not. He can't catch anybody, mostly because he talks too much. He's the most incompetent dragon ever. He's about on a par with the zombies in Shaun of the Dead, who at least were just zombies. Yeah, Mr. Cumberbatch has a good dubbing voice, but the characterization is horrendous.

And then the movie just stops.

Martin Freeman is good as Bilbo, and Mckellan is excellent as Gandalf, as usual. I also rather like the fellow who plays Balin, who ever he is. I was happy to see Orlando Bloom again. The music was nondescript. By the time I got out of the theater, I was really glad to. This thing is like Temple of Doom Part 2 or Van Helsing Part 3.

Jackson really seems to have lost it.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

I wasn't a very big fan of the first Thor. I wouldn't have picked Kenneth Branagh to direct a comic-book movie, any more than I would've picked Ang Lee. I thought Branagh was rather a lousy special-effects director, and didn't know how to handle the action scenes (bad action scenes are rather typical of American superhero stuff, in my opinion) and while Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins, and Tim Hiddleson, as Thor, Odin, and Loki respectively, were all pretty good, the story was bogged down, as origin stories usually are, by a lot of exposition you didn't care about. Also, having grown up on the original Thor comics, where the Norse gods were really the Norse gods, and not aliens, I didn't like the whole SF aspect of the thing...making them aliens might've made them fit more (kinda) with the other Marvel superheroes, who are all basically SF, but why bother...none of it makes sense anyway.

All that being said, I just saw Thor: The Dark World, and enjoyed it quite a bit. For one thing, the thing looked way better than the first one did. The photography was better, it looked to me as though they had a way bigger budget this time around, the production design was niftier, the imagery was cooler (I particularly liked the Norse/Byzantine Icon picture book that depicted the bad guys, the big geary things in Heimdall's hangout, and the giant evil black vehicles), and we got right into the story pretty damn quick. Aside from the evil elves, who were introduced pretty efficiently right off, we knew who everybody was, and we didn't spend a lot of time spinning our wheels. The special effects were way better, and almost all the humor was funny---the audience I was with was laughing quite a bit, and me and the wife were too. There was a surprising amount of violence, too, and that goes a long way with sadistic old me.

The story, which bears more than a passing resemblence to the Titans-returning plots that have figured in our Greek Mythological fantasies lately (Wrath of the Titans, Immortals), Dark World serves up the Dark Elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who ruled the universe back when all was in tenebrae, got beaten by Odin's father Bor, and has been waiting for a chance to come back and reassert the primacy of Basic Black. If I have a problem with the movie, it's him; they don't really provide him with a philosophy, and they should've. That being said, he's very creepy looking (kinda like the Makers from Prometheus) and he's got a horde of henchmen who are visually satisfactory too, including his beefy bristling-with-spikes chief enforcer.


We're coming up on a once-in-five thousand-years realignment of "The Nine Worlds," whatever they are, and Malekith's got a shot are getting his hands back on  the Aether, a substance which will grant him ultimate power, etc. etc. But the Aether has gotten into Thor's mortal girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who's been whisked up to Asgard by her hammer-wielding boyfriend; Malekith and company storm the place in a pretty damn spectacular assault, grab her, and head back to the Dark World, which is Iceland with the lights off. Needless to say, Thor decides to go get her, and, disobeying Odin, recruits Loki---who's in prison after his Avengers hijinks---in an attempt to breach Malekith's domain, free the babe, and destroy the Aether.

The movie's been fairly amusing up till this point, but it picks up considerably once we get a bunch more Loki. he was definitely one of the strongest things about The Avengers, and he's got a much bigger part here, with a certain amount of emotional depth. Moreover, he makes up, somewhat, for the lack of a proper main heavy...he's engaging, he's funny, he's not all bad, but he's a snake too. He's definitely the best character  in the film (he certainly puts poor old steadfast Thor in the shade), and he's almost enough to sell the movie all by himself.

Let's see...the screenplay, by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely features some good writing. As I said, the movie is consistently funny when it means to be, and it manages to be affecting in ways that are kinda surprising. There are spots where I couldn't figure out what the eff was going on, particularly towards the end, but even when I was confused, something would make me laugh, so I never quite got cranky. Director Alan Taylor does good job with the people, the special effects and the action, and I hope he gets to direct the next installment. In short, I had more fun than I've had with any Marvel  movie since the first Iron Man. I'm just sort've pissed that Marvel got bought by Disney...I had some Marvel stock and made quite a bit of money with it, but I couldn't care less about the Mouse, and bought something else...

Ah well.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Krrish3 Review

I’m a big Hindi-movie fan, and I just got back from a showing of a Bollywood superhero flick called Krissh 3, which I really enjoyed. It was made by a production company called FilmKraft, which is the brainchild of the Roshan brothers, Rakesh and Rojesh, and they make the kind of films that Aintitcool folks like. Back in the nineties, they did this blood-soaked action-supernatural movie called Karan/Argun, which featured Sharukh Khan and Salman Khan as brothers reincarnated to avenge their own murders on Temple of Doom villain Amrish Puri...Mr. Puri also handled the bad guy duties in another FilmKraft actioner called Koyla, which had Sharukh in it too, and was an brightly-colored mashup of Forrest Gump, Rambo, and Braveheart. In the 2000's the Roshans branched out into science-fiction with Koi Mil Gaya, which was part Charlie and part ET, with cuddly alien Jadoo bestowing smarts upon super-handsome Hrithik Roshan (Rakesh’s son), who does a mean turn as a simpleton who sure can dance and gets the girl.


In Krrish, which is a sequel to Koi Mil Gaya, we skip to the simpleton’s titular son, (also played by Hritihik,) who, because of Jadoo’s intervention, has a bunch of super-powers, his exploits choreographed for us by HK action genius Ching Siu Tung. To make a long story short, dad gets kidnapped by evil genius Naseruddin Shah, who’s plotting to supplant himself God Almighty by means of time travel...much mayhem ensues, and the son gets the girl (Priyanka Chopra) this time.

Okay, so, even though there was no Krissh 2 because you had Koi Mil Gaya and then Krissh, we get Krissh 3, and it’s an improvement in many respects on the second installment. A lot of Indian movies go on so long they seem like double features, and sometimes the halves are radically different, say, the first half being a lot of horrible comedy, and the second being a fairly good, vicious revenge yarn, with no attempt whatsoever to paper over the change in tone.

But while Krrish took forever to get past the comedy/romance stuff, and there were a number of distracting musical numbers, 3 holds the singing, dancing and mush rather to a minimum; the villain’s introduced right off, and that’s followed by a bunch of pretty competent special effects/ superhero whatnot involving a jetliner with stuck landing gear. You can tell that about eighty percent of the special effects are going to be up to western standard, and you can kind of relax. A grisly plot unfolds...our heavy is a crippled telekinesis-using bad guy named Kaal (Vivek Oberoi) who has a pharmaceutical order to get his quadriplegic body up and going, he inflicts horrible plagues on places like India, then rakes up tremendous profits by dispensing the cure. Kaal also has a small army of mutants that do all all sorts of freaky things (one has a really long froggy tongue and Krrish swings him hard into into things with it), my favorite being a shape-changing siren played by the luscious Kangana Renaut, whose ability to morph results in a slew of story twists...she falls in love (of course) with Hrithik. The final dustup in downtown Mumbai is a far cry from your usual Indian FX fare, blending good-to-excellent CG with great wirework and action directed by the aforementioned Mr. Ching. Hrithik is a pretty damned awesome athlete, and looks great in his impeccably-choreographed fight scenes...he and Vivek Oberoi destroy quite a bit of Mumbai skyline line, smashing each other straight through skyscrapers like planes on 9/11.

The story doesn’t serve up anything as clever as the time-travel element in Krrish, but it’s still  serviceable, the subplot with Kangana Renaut is surprisingly effective, and Vivek’s malefactor is well-drawn and has a fiendish secret. Rakesh Roshan is a good director, and knows when to step back and let Ching Siu-Tung do his thing...the music by Rajesh Roshan goes down easily enough. All in all, I had a better time with this epic than with many western superhero movies, and you should catch it...given the fact that Hollywood isn’t turning out so much product anymore, Hindi films are appearing in our multiplexes more and more. They also show up on Netflix. I particularly recommend the straight-out gangster slaughterfests.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Gravity Review

Just got back from a showing of Gravity. I'd say the theatre was only about one-half full...hope that isn't indicative of the business the film is doing nationwide, because the movie sure is something. The reviews were almost uniformly ecstatic, and they were on target. For once, you've got  a flick that lives up to the hype. It's pretty astonishing in a whole lot of ways, and while I have some quibbles, they're really just that.

Movie's directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuaron, who's a Mexican dude who grew up wanting to be an astronaut...I gather there just isn't much chance for a Mexican to be an astronaut if he doesn't get involved in the Mexican military, and maybe not even then...Mr. Cuaron wound up making movies instead, and well, he does it fantastically.  I've only seen three of his films, but I thought Prisoner of Azkaban was a big step up from the Chris Columbus Potter movies, and that Children of Men was one of the best science-fiction films I'd ever seen, featuring these long set-piece action sequences which appeared to be single takes, even though they couldn't possibly have been anything of the sort.

Gravity begins with just such a sequence...I'ver heard it's twelve minutes full of extremely complicated  business, all in one seamlessly blended ostensible shot. But whereas the stuff in Childsren of Men had been terrestrial action,  in Gravity, we're outin space, with the camera (or whatever seems to be the camera in these digital days) sliding in and out among loads of completely convincing VFX. It's all extremely audacious, and will certainly be the envy of special effect long-take masters such as Spielberg and Zemeckis; this sequence simply kicks their asses.

But it's just for starters.

The film gets blasting really quickly. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts on a US space shuttle out trying to repair the Hubble Telescope. A series of long shots meld into close-ups then swing back out and in again...we get a pretty good idea of what the shuttle and the telescope are like, Bullock and Clooney are doing something outside, we don't really care what it is. Within a very short time, it's established that a bunch of space junk is headed their way, although no one is quite sure if there's a problem...the music gets effectively foreboding, and we learn there's a problem for sure, and all this terrible crap starts blowing through the Hubble and the Shuttle like cannon-balls and bullets. Bullock goes flying off into space with her tether snapped; this is sheer white knuckle suspense, totally nightmarish. Clooney, who's got a jet-pack, goes out to save her...the first twenty minutes of this flick are more exciting than every movie I've seen this year put together, and it just keeps rolling from there. A one-damn-thing-after another quality does begin to set in, but no sooner has that thought crossed your mind when you're plunged into a new totally convincing horrific situation with a top-notch director making expert use of very engaging actors and some of the best special effects that have ever been committed to film, or digital.

What's more, the screenplay is very solid. As I said, everything gets going extremely quickly, and the breathers are just long enough to prepare you for the next tornado of bad. We get some backstory at a couple of junctions, but it's actually interesting, and you get well into it before you even realize that what's you're listening to. There are a few scenes, especially towards the end, that are surprising and genuinely moving. Clooney is extremely likeable (as almost always), and Bullock is endearing in a way that the last few Bullock vehicles might've made you forget about.

As for those quibbles, well...I don't think the Hubble telescope is in anything like the same orbit as the Russian Space Station or the Chinese would've been a very long haul. Also, I didn't get a very clear take on what Sandra Bullock, who seems to be a just plain doctor, would be doing on the space station at all, let alone participating in extravehicular repairs. Maybe this sort of thing actually happens, I'm no expert, and I don't know. Also, I don't think we get a reason for why the Chinese space station suddenly begins dropping out of is depicted as abandoned, and maybe there was a line that wound up on the cutting-room floor, about the Chinese just letting it falling out of the sky. But mostly, the science in the film seems to be a considerable cut above what you have in most space movies. It can't quite compare with Apollo Thirteen, which is the gold standard space flick in my opinion, but...A13 had the advantage of being a true story where everything really hung together because, happened.

You may be amused by Gravity's ground control...yep, it's A13's Gene Kranz, Ed Harris.

All in all, whenever I had a problem, the stuff onscreen was just so stupendous that I told my little niggling back-of-mind voice to just shut the eff up. Go see this thing. I hope it's a huge hit.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Godawful Prose in The Great Gatsby, or: Meyer Wolfsheim's Eyelike Nasal Hair

Just saw the Baz Luhrmann Great Gatsby, and enjoyed it quite a bit.That was rather a surprise, since I had a distinct antipathy to the source material, like so many others who’d had Scott Fitzgerald’s little book thrust upon them in their younger and more vulnerable years. The novel had bored me silly, and I found the writing a horrible combination of precious and strangely pulpy. Even though the film used some of Fitzgerald’s better prose in voiceovers, it was sufficiently devoid of his style to ennable me to concentrate on the basic strengths of the story; in fact, I was inspired to give the novel another chance. But even though I did indeed encounter some good prose in the book, and thought Fitzgerald handled dialogue fairly well, I was constantly breaking my teeth on big silly nuggets of terrible stuff.

The novel gets ridiculous instantly. We’re asked to swallow a bunch of self-congratulation by Nick Carraway, the narrator, who informs us that “he’s inclined to reserve all judgements, a habit that has opened up to me many curious natures, and made me to he victim of not a few veteran bores.”

Good thing he doesn’t judge them.

He goes on to tell us that “the abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person.” Because of his willingness to listen to twaddle, the poor lad was, in college, “accused of being a politician,” because he was “privy to the secrets of wild, unknown men.” He hangs about with men both “wild” and “unknown”—one thinks immediately of Tarzan—and people decide he’s a smoothie, although they wouldn’t. Nonetheless, even though he’s oh so tolerant of these loons, he’s “feigned sleep, preoccupation, or hostile levity”---whatever “hostile levity” is---whenever it looks they’re going to say something indiscreet. There’s just so much that even broad-minded him can endure. Fact is, all this is just incoherent. I think we’re supposed to take Carraway’s self-representation at face value...except that you can tell that his essential stance is one of absolute, deep, dripping disdain for just about everything. Eventually he decides he likes Gatsby, but that’s about it. Everybody else in the book is shallow at best or monstrous at worst.

But that isn’t what bothered me the most. It was hunkering down waiting for the next megaton of literary ineptness to go off. Fitzgerald has this reputation for being this fabulous prose stylist; he shouldn’t.  Consider this horrible piece of geographical exposition:

 “It was a matter of chance that I should have rented a house in one of the strangest communities in North America. It was on that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of new York—and where there are, among other natural curiosities, two unusual formations of land. Twenty miles from the city, a pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound. They are not perfect ovals—like the egg in the Columbus story, they are both crushed flat at the contact end—but their physical resemblence must be a source of perpetual confusion to the gulls that fly overhead. To the wingless a more arresting phenomenon is their dissimilarity in every particular except shape and size.”

Okay then.

One of the strangest communities in North America. That truly would be something, but Fitzgerald doesn’t deliver, after making the as-yet unidentified West Egg sound like something from H. P. Lovecraft. So, it’s full of nouveaux riche folks.They’re not like crackers from Deliverance or Fish People from Innsmouth. Fitzgerald indulges constantly in gross overstatement.

It was on that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of New York--- Riotous? The whole island? Gatsby throws parties there, although everything else on Long Island seems kind of stuffy and old money.

There are, among other natural curiosities, two unusual formations of land...When Fitzgerald describes these formations, it turns out they’re pretty tepid, as natural curiosities go. You wouldn’t even be aware of their ostensible curiousness unless you were in an airplane looking down...and even then, they wouldn’t rate. They’re  egg-shaped. If that’s what passes for a natural curiosity on Long Island, I’ll go somewhere else.

A pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western Hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound. The basic concept here is rather difficult, and Fitzgerald isn’t up to dealing with it. He should’ve said something like, “two nearly identical formations, egglike in outline, jut out into Long Island Sound.” Outline is better than contour, because it’s flat; simply calling these things eggs instead of formations with egglike outlines evokes Alice Rock or those Easter cakes made in molds. Contour is one of the chief culprits sounds three dimensional when you apply it to an egglike thing. As for courtesy, it’s oh-so-precious. As for most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere, it can’t possibly be true---it’s another dose of overstatement, and I really don’t know what he means by it either. If indeed he means it’s like a barnyard, what are we to make of that? Is it full of pigs and cows and chickens, wet ones? Yeesh.

They are not perfect ovals---Neither are eggs.

Like the egg in the Columbus story—they are both crushed flat at the contact end--- This is just tortured. Difficult in a worthless way. They’re not crushed—they’re connected to the rest of the island at their big ends. But putting it that way wouldn’t be fussy and pedantic enough for Mr. F.

Their physical resemblence must be the source of perpetual confusion to the gulls that fly overhead. Their physical resemblance? To each other? To eggs? I suppose it must be eggs (even though the sentence is very badly structured) because the gulls are perpetually confused by them. What is meant by perpetual? Do the gulls circle perpetually, or are they confused even after they leave?  In what does their confuse consist? Do they want to come down and incubate the peninsulas with their maternal butts? This is all a joke, apparently, but it’s witless.

To the wingless a more arresting phenomenon is their dissimilarity in every particular except size and shape. What? Every particular? Absurd.For one thing, we’ve already been told that the whole island is “riotous.” Perhaps we should suppose that one egg is inhabited by people, and the other by penguins. And the people drive cars, while the penguins drive bicycles, and the former drink Coca-cola while the latter drink Pepsi...

Although that would just be silly.

But so far, we haven’t gotten to the really weird stuff. Sometimes F’s howlers are simply unfathomable. Take the scene where we encounter Daisy and Jordan Baker for the first time:

“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were bouyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”

Man is this a wacky piece of business.

It sounds like something from a Miyazaki cartoon. The women are on a balloonlike couch that—in addition to the wind in their clothing---makes it look as though their clothes have just been off on a balloon flight around the house—inside or outside, I dunno. Some might object that taking F. to task about their clothes   flying by themselves is a cheap shot, but hell, even  literary titans should watch their pronouns. The breeze—which actually sounds like more of a tornado—makes the curtains whip and snap and the pictures groan; are we in the Haunted Mansion here? When the “caught” wind dies down—caught adds nothing—the curtains and the rugs and the two young women balloon to the floor. Have the curtains become detached in that “breeze?” Were the rugs picked up off the floor and whirled about like pizzas in a pizzeria, only to balloon down like the ladies, who go right to the floor, having fallen off the couch, I guess? Is the damn thing still hanging in midair?

Or, consider this description of Daisy: “For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward as I listened—then the glow faded, each light deserting her with a lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.” Astounding. Each light deserts with a lingering regret? How many suns do we have here? Is he talking about the highlights, as in, the one on the point of her nose went, then the one on her cheek, then the one on her chin? And how about these children? God help me, I envisioned a bunch of them on her face, about the size of ladybugs, creeping back out of sight behind her jaw.

Daisy’s face has other peculiarities too, besides swarms of tiny kiddies. Her eyes can do things that ours can't: “Daisy took her face in her hands as if feeling its lovely shape, and her eyes moved out gradually into the velvet dusk.” This is the kind of writing you’d have gotten from Robert E. Howard when he was twenty-two years old. When I said that Fitzgerald gets pulpy, I meant it. Where the hell was Fitzgerald’s editor?

But eyes are consistently problematical in Gatsby. Take the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg on the big billboard in the Valley of Ashes. We’re told the retinas are three feet high. Fitzgerald seems to mean their pupils are three feet high, but whatever. Then we have this, when “three modish negroes” pass by in a limousine: “I laughed aloud when the yolks of their eyeballs rolled towards us in haughty rivalry.” Yikes. Profoundly messed up on every conceivable level. Eyes aren’t like yolks, unless Fitzgerald thinks they’re yellow and gooey. I guess he actually meant whites, as in egg-whites, but...those are transparent and not like the whites of eyes, and not very much like negro eye-whites neither. And no matter what, nobody’s eyes roll out into the gap between two cars in “haughty rivalry”. And even if they did, it would not evoke a laugh from me....

Then again, maybe it might, after I finished screaming.

And speaking of extraordinary ocular matters, we have the bit where Meyer Wolfsheim is introduced: “A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril.” You say to yourself, surely F. doesn’t mean that Wolfsheim observes you with his nasal tufts, but...on the next page, we get, “His nostrils turned to me in an interested way.” I know what you’re thinking...he views you with his nostrils, not the hair therein...but even then, F. would be contradicting himself..

It just goes on and on. Every time you start to warm up to the story, one of these things comes down like a mortar-shell. Carraway’s underwear coils “like a damp snake” around his legs—perhaps he should pull his underwear up, so it’d ride up his buttcrack like it does on the rest of us. Beads of sweat race cool across his back—peculiar gravity we’re having. Here’s one of my very favorites:  “Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.” Pap of life? A giant boob in the sky loaded with incomparable wonder that Jay Gatsby can only suck if he climbs alone—alone, mind you----up the “blocks of the sidewalks” to the top?

All this out of the corner of his eye, by the way.

Ah well, maybe I’m mistaken, and it’s all really fabulous. But in my humble opinion, some of this prose is right up there with the worst of J. Fenimore Cooper, and it’s a pity Mark Twain didn’t live long enough to dig his claws into Mr. F.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Single Most Rightwing Movie of Recent Years

Coen Brothers don’t seem to have a rep for conservatism among conservatives, but there’s a lot for a reactionary like myself to like about some of their films. While Judaism seems to make them extremely uncomfortable—don’t know what the story is there--- they portray Christianity, generally, in a positive light, and they seem to be deeply suspicious of progressives. Barton Fink features a solipsistic Clifford Odets-like social-realist playwright who imagines he’s a great friend of the common man, even though he has no knowledge of common men at all, and couldn’t care less what they actually think. Fink is a giant bash on liberal intellectuals, and it’s kinda amazing that it garnered such great reviews...if the movie is any indication, the brothers simply loathe everything that your typical critic reveres.

Now, the critical reception for The Lady Killers was a lot less positive...maybe it had to do with the ideology, but if so, the reviewers weren’t telling us what was actually bothering them, bitching instead about the broad humor and asserting the film’s inferiority to the Alec Guinness original. Now, you can certainly argue that the 1955 version is better, for a number of reasons. But I don’t recall reading a single review which reacted to the remake’s screamingly conservative agenda. I dunno..maybe the fact that the old church lady is black blinded the critics to the propagandistic thrust. But the fact remains that the Coens were discharging one starboard broadside after another, and it’s incredible that nobody noticed.

Now, in the Guinness movie, there’s very little in the way of ideology, at least in my have this little old lady who rents a room to a gang of criminals, recruited by Guinness, who are preparing for a robbery. It’s vintage Ealing Studios stuff, with very sharp writing and wonderful performances, Guinness being very near the top of his form as a demented criminal genius. But aside from a certain amount of nostalgia about Victorian values (which Mrs. Wilberforce embodies), it’s primarily concerned with plot, character and laughs, not that they’re anything to sneeze at. Even though it retains the bare bones of the story, the remake is a very different the original, Mrs. Wilberforce, unable to give the money back, donates some of it to a starving artist. In the remake, the old lady gives the whole caboodle to Bob Jones University.

The Coens blare their anti-secular theme right at the gitgo. The opening song is “Let’s Return to God,” and that turns out to be the message, unambiguously and without irony. The location is moved from London to Mississippi, and the little old lady this time is an elderly black widow, Mrs. Munson (Irma P. Hall), a devout Christian whose religion is front and center. Whereas the lady in the older film is rather sweet, Mrs. Munson is pretty stern and has no use whatsoever for hiphop culture. Into her house comes G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks), a professor of classics; he rents a room and talks her into letting him use her basement, ostensibly so that  his rococo quartet can practice. In actuality, they’re planning to tunnel into the office of a nearby casino strongroom, and they are, with the exception of a likable muscular lunkhead named Lump (Ryan Hudson), a venemous clutch of guys that any conservative would hate, hate hate.

First off, there’s Hank’s character, a Marx-quoting secularist who believes the formless masses need to be endowed with purpose by higher intellects like himself. There’s a telling scene in which he and Mrs. Munson are reading in the living room, and she asks him about his attitude towards the Bible. He replies condescendingly that he’s “Found sustenance there,” then goes on to assert that there are “Many Good Books.” Confronted later with the prospect of “indulging in divine worship,” he practically has an attack of asthma.

A different strain of leftwing horrible is represented by Mr. Pancake (J.K. Simmons); a blowhard ex-Freedom Rider who fought against Bull Connor, he’s matured into an awful old hippy who vents self-righteous liberal bromides, reads Mother Jones, and is always trying to weasel favorable treatment for himself. That doesn’t sit well with Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans) a shiftless foul-mouthed black dude who works at the office they intend to rob, cries prejudice when he’s fired for sexual harrassment, and couldn’t care less about the efforts of the Freedom Riders, because he’s a terminal idiot who doesn’t vote.

Finally, most startling of all, there’s the General, a menacing Asian who’s evidently an ex-North Vietnamese tunneling honcho!

Masking the sounds of their labors with recordings of rococo quintets, the gang sets the Professor’s plan into motion, with Dorr allaying Mrs. Munson’s suspicions whenever they’re aroused; various obstacles are overcome, and the vault’s robbed, but things go terribly awry after that. Mrs. Munson discovers what  the Professor et. al have been up to, demands that they give the money back, and go to church. Dorr decides that the old lady must be dealt with somehow, although he’s a bit queasy at the prospect of killing her; when he asks the General, who’s a Buddhist, to suggest some “middle way”, the General responds, “Must float like a leaf in the river of life...and kill old lady.”

They draw straws, and one by one, end up dead themselves, apparently because God has got Mrs. Munson’s back. Gawain shoots himself accidentally after a spasm of guilt. Pancake is killed by the General while attempting to abscond with the cash, having left a cello-case full of Mother Jones magazines in place of the money. When the General climbs the stairs to garrotte Mrs. Munson in her bed, a Jesus cuckoo-clock goes off, startling him and causing him to swallow his cigarette; he tries to wash it down with Mrs. Munson’s denture water, then falls backwards down the steps and breaks his neck. Dorr then tries to convince Lump to do the dirty work; Lump, who can’t stand the thought of killing the “nice old lady,” gets the drop on Dorr with a  revolver, which misfires. Lump takes a look down the barrel, pulls the trigger...bang. Hanks is ultimately killed by a gothic statue which cracks loose from an obelisk and hits him on the head, whereupon he falls onto a garbage barge that has taken all the other malefactors to an offshore landfill. Mrs. Munson tries to give the money back, but everybody thinks she’s senile, and she donates it instead to the aforementioned  university. As the end credits roll, spiritual singers belt out a rousing rendition of “Let the Light From The Lighthouse Shine on Me.”

The movie’s quite funny, but Mrs. Munson isn’t subjected to the slightest scorn. It’s possible to fool her, and you can see why everyone would react to her bizarre stories by thinking she’s lost her marbles. But her Christianity is taken at completely face value, and depicted as being vastly superior to any of the alternatives the film presents—the counterculture, Marxism, secular humanism, etc. The movie is, purely and simply, a total conservative fix, and if you haven’t seen it, you should go and bask in the rightwing waves emanating from your TV...that’s if you’re not the sort of person it’s making fun of. I don’t think it’s first-rate Coen Brothers, but it sure seems to show that they’re anything but PC.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Belated Elysium Review

Didn't go see Elysium when it first came out for a couple of reasons. First off, it sounded like a huge load of left-wing propaganda. Now, there are a lot of SF ,movies that are left-wing propaganda...Bladerunner comes immediately to mind. But when I heard that the climax of the Elysium was all shaky-cam and lousy and not very exciting, I decided to skip it, at least for the time being. Being leftwing is one thing. But having a dull climax is vastly worse.

Okay, me and the wife just wanted to go out to a movie tonight, so I noticed Elysium was still playing, and we went. I thought, well, it's going to be  great effects flick, and I'll just enjoy all that stuff. Director Neil Blomquist sure served up a load of excellent EFX in District 9, and I had a pretty good time with that movie, even though it was pretty dumb, almost too dumb for me to have a pretty good time with...boy was that flick stupid. I continue to be amazed by filmmakers---who must be rather tech-savvy---being so alarmingly ignorant of science; but they never seem to improve on that score.

Take that last Star Trek flick. The Enterprise guys want to make a volcano stop erupting (in order to save the lives of Spock and some aliens), so they send down a cold fusion device to freeze the insides of the volcano---as if cold fusion has anything to do with freezing things. In that last Batman movie, you've got a cold fusion reactor whose fissionable material is decaying into something that will produce a nuclear explosion. The whole point of cold fusion is that you don't use fissionable material...and fissionable material gets less explosive as it decays, etc. Well, in District 9, you've got this alien goo which is necessary to run the alien technnology. It just happens to have the property of turning human beings into aliens if it gets squirted on them. Huh? Why? WTF? Moreover, when someone gets squirted on and starts turning into an alien, they keep on working physiologically anyway, even though their bodily systems are being supplanted by alien crustacean physiology, and one presumes, DNA. Moreover, the big alien ship operates on the goo. It seems to be parked over the shantytown in South Africa because it's out of goo and can't go home. The aliens have gone down to live in the shantytown, even though they've apparently brought enough goo with them to run the spaceship. All it takes to to run the spaceship is sufficient goo to fill a milkshake container, although a big mess of that goo gets squirted on Sharlto Copley, and starts to transform him...sheerly idiotic.

However, there were enough blowings-up and blood and gore and cool technology and creature designs to distract me.

Well, Elysium is maybe even dumber and rather boring to boot. Also most leftwing, in a really stupid way that distorts the storytelling. Given what the people up in Elysium can do, you just can't figure out why they wouldn't make things a bit better on earth....but I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Now get this. The evil Republicans on the orbitting space-station have a process called re-atomization(!) which will fix everything that's wrong with you in a matter of seconds. Yep, re-atomization. They flip a switch, run some electricity through their machine, and redo every cell in your body. They're hellbent on denying this to the rest of us, even though it's just that easy. The evil security chief (played with a bizarre accent by Jodie Foster, who looks like she's been repeatedly microwaved) has an evil assassin (played by Sharlto Copley, who seems to have wandered in from the Road Warrior)...the whole front of his head gets blown off at one point. They put him on the re-atomizer table, hit the switch, and, bing! the whole front of his head regrows in a matter of seconds. He looks all young and much better across the board. Seeing as how he does all this dirty work for the security chief, you'd think he would've been rewarded with a facelift a long time a matter of fact, you'd think that Jodie Foster would never have let herself grow old, and need to have her face microwaved, but nothing about this movie makes any sense.

The various premises are that earth is polluted and overpopulated, and all the evil rich people live in the space-station, which looks like circular California. All the assholes that made this flick probably live in the present day equivalent, and can afford much better healthcare than you and I, including the cosmetic surgery that created Matt Damon's ridiculous Peter Pan nose. Never mind that after completing their preachy shoots every day, Matt and Jodie and whoever undoubtedly retreated to someplace like Elysium...left the shitty Mexican favelas they were filming in, to go to some swank hotel in Mexico City or whatever.

Anyway, they've got re-atomizers up in space assholeland. As we learn at the end of the movie, they've got enough re-atomizers stored away somewhere to fix everything on everybody on earth...never mind that Elysium just doesn't seem to have many people on it, and you can't figure out where they're keeping all these extra re-atomizers, or why they need them. Now...seeing as how the space assholes seem to be ruling earth, you would think that their henchmen below would live in enclaves that would have re-atomizers...certainly, the space assholes would want to have some in case there was an accident when they visited, whatever. Undoubtedly, there would be all sorts of great places down here still, seeing as how they can make a big space station, right? Nah. If you want to get re-atomized, you gotta go up to Elysium. I bet they keep all the toilets up there too.

So you have Matt Damon, an ex car-thief who was raised by an inspiring nun (at least the movie isn't an exercise in Catholic-bashing!). Evil Republican robots roust him and break his limbs for no reason, and he works making something for an evil capitalist. The factory's got a chamber where you'll get irradiated if you're stuck inside. His evil boss makes him go inside to clear a jammed...thing. The chamber closes. Matt Damon gets irradiated. The chamber has a sensor that can tell if there's someone trapped inside, but it doesn't have an automatic cutoff. Guys have to come to pry the door open or whatever. Why don't they have a cutoff? Because Neil Blomkamp doesn't know anything about anything except doing good special effects. And oh, yes, because the company is evil.

They give Matt pills and send him on his way. He's been irradiated so badly that he might irradiate someone else, like you'd x-ray someone else if you'd been given a big dose of x-rays (Mr. Blomkamp seems to have been learning about radiation from the guys who made the Batman flick). Matt's going to die in five days, although the pills will keep him going, in some sense. He's been irradiated so badly that he's going to have complete organ shutdown, but he can take pills, which are apparently made by elves. Now, the reason you die and get complete organ failure when you've been irradiated is because you've had something like a zillion little bullets which have just gone through every cell in your body.

But Matt can take a pill!

He doesn't want to die, though, and thinks he can get re-atomized if only he can get up into Elysium. There's a criminal mastermind/revolutionary guy who can make this happen, if only Matt will do him a favor, namely, get some information out of  some capitalist's head and onto a chip or whatever. Of course, Matt wouldn't have to go to Elysium if he wasn't fucked up...but he's pretty helpless as is. He'd need what would have to be a pretty expensive high-tech exo-skeleton to fulfill his mission. But why would anyone give him one of those, when they could just slap it on someone who wasn't dying of "total organ failure"? It's like that stuff in Robocop, where they want to use the brain of a guy who's just taken one through the head in order to make their cybernetic organism. Why not get someone whose brains haven't been reamed out?

But I digress.

Matt and some other guys go after the guy who owns the factory where Matt was irradiated. Just so happens this guy is involved in a plan to overthrow the government...evidently this involves "rebooting" Elysium...why Jodie Foster just doesn't send guys with guns to take down her superiors, I don't know, but this is The Future here. After downloading the contents of  the capitalist noggin, Matt runs afoul of  the aforementioned Sharlto Copley. The film degenerates into a lot of stupid chases and explosions...among other things, barbaric Sharlto dispatches victims with a samurai sword, and while I'm all for that, just about everything about The Future  just seems like shittified stuff right here on earth now, including the cars and the clothes and the teapots and the guns and whatever, even though we're supposedly a hundred and fifty years hence.

Although they do have re-atomizers, naturally.

Okay, the plan for rebooting Elysium (or the coup or whatever that the capitalist has devised) winds up in Matt's head...Sharlto (who's generally unintelligible) gets hold of him and decides he wants the info, and takes him and Sonia Braga's dishy neice Ana and her daughter (who has leukemia) up to Elysium. It's taken us forever to get to the titular place...mostly we've been slithering around in sweaty stinky third-world stuff. But even though Elysium is an awesome special effect, well...we don't see much of it. We really don't. You'd think the people who made this thing would've said...let's contrive a big climax utilizing this fantastic backdrop like a big circular California.

But no, we don't get that. We have to settle for a lot of stupid chase and gunfight stuff in not particularly interesting interiors,  involving Sharlto deciding to take the info from Matt Damon and become the ruler of Elysium, which he intends to reboot and rule with his two or three lackeys, after icing Jodie Foster. As for security guys on Elysium, there are four or five of them, and the President of the Republic or whatever accompanies them to gunbattles. The big finish is a really boring shaky-cam fistfight between Matt Damon and Sharlto on a catwalk.I guess that this hohummery is supposed to be interesting because they've both got exo-suits on...but it just seems exactly like a fistfight on a catwalk. Sharlto gets blown up, but Matt downloads reboot orders that turn everyone on earth into a citizen of Elysium and make it possible for everyone to be re-atomized all the time, all fifty billion of us, or however many of us there are in the terrible overpopulated future...the end.

Oh yeah, and the little girl gets her leukemia cured, not that we care.

This thing didn't do too alienated me before it even opened, and I gather it did the same to a lot of other folks who'd have been its natural audience. Deciding to rise above my prejudices, I went and got spanked. Please, please you cinematic artistes, I beg you. If you're going to serve up your lefty agitprop SF, try to learn something about science, or just plain life, for that matter. And don't give us a largely Elysium-free climactic fistfight on a catwalk in a movie called Elysium.