Thursday, October 18, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Lake Placid (1999)

The movie podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood's monster-movie month rolls along with Lake Placid, a 1999 film about a saltwater crocodile living in Maine. You know, where it'd freeze to death pretty quickly. I didn't see this when it was in theaters, but I do remember wanting to--my parents didn't let me see a lot of R-rated movies, especially ones that were poorly-reviewed or otherwise lacking in some redeeming quality--and although I can't say I jumped at the chance to see it, I did want to see if it held up.

Here's the podcast. Now for the review...


Plot

In rural Maine, a fish and game officer is bitten in half in the fictional Black Lake while studying the beaver population. A reptilian tooth is recovered from his body, prompting Jack Wells (Bill Pullman), who is also a fish and game officer, and Sheriff Hank Keough (Brendan Gleeson) to contact what is obviously the American Museum of Natural History in New York for assistance from a paleontologist. Workplace romantic drama leads to Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda) getting sent to investigate and soon eccentric billionaire Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt) arrives to make things even more fun.

It turns out that the lake is home to a saltwater crocodile that has developed a taste for human flesh. The dysfunctional (that's how the Wikipedia article describes them) quartet soon find themselves fighting for their lives. And what does the cranky old lady Delores Bickerman (Betty White) have to do with their situation?

The Good

*After an excessively long opening credits sequence (more on that later), the movie moves along at a decent pace. It's less than 90 minutes long.

*There are some funny bits. Wells and Keough lusting after a teenage girl in the town much to Scott's disgust, a sequence involving a moose, and some of Hector's more bizarre utterances were amusing. There's also a joke about eminent domain.

*Betty White is pretty amusing as the old lady who lives by the lake. I liked her introductory sequence and how much of a gigantic smart-ass she is. And although Hector is oftentimes obnoxious, I found how Platt handled his complete lack of tact funny, at least some of the time.

*We don't see the crocodile very much early on, avoiding the problem of way too much awful CGI that marred Eight-Legged Freaks, which I complained quite a lot about in (my review) and (on the podcast). Think Jaws, where the shark stayed mostly off-camera until the end. And most of the time they seem to be using practical effects or decent-quality CGI.

*The sequence involving panicking fish foreshadowing a monster attack I thought was creative and well-done. And there's no need to actually see anything.

The Bad

*The opening goes on for entirely too long. It's not nearly as bad as the opening of Spawn--you can see my commentary on that here--but let's cut to the chase people.

*Most of the characters aren't particularly sympathetic. Keogh has a chip on his shoulder about people more educated or from bigger cities looking down on him and pretty much every character from outside the town is snotty to varying degrees, so he's pretty much right. Scott is, as TVTropes would put it, an excruciatingly obnoxious Straw Feminist, a stereotypically snotty New Yorker, and incredibly high maintenance. All she does is complain, sneer at the locals (with the exception of a female sheriff's deputy), and act like everything she doesn't like is motivated by sexism. In her defense there is some of that going on too, especially from Keogh, which just serves to make other other characters less sympathetic too. And Hector is so utterly obnoxious to the locals that even Scott comes to their defense. The almighty TVTropes calls this "Developing Doomed Characters" or "Twenty Minutes With The Jerks."

*As far as the quality of the acting is concerned, they've got a lot of actors with decent resumes but nobody other than Betty White is particularly impressive. Bill Pullman was one of the more well-known actors of the 1990s, but he seemed particularly nonexistent.

*There's a poorly done romantic subplot that should have either been better developed or excised completely. The two characters could bond over their shared disdain for Hector or it could be something obviously brought on by the survival situation (I think this comes up in the movie Speed), but there's really very little substance to it.

*Heck, there's a second poorly-done romantic subplot, which seems to be mostly setup for a character to offer to sleep with another character if they don't do something stupid. This one has even less substance and seems to exist pretty much to set up a single joke. Blargh.

The Verdict

Improved special effects can't save the film from an obnoxious, unsympathetic bunch of characters even if it is fast moving. 5.5 out of 10.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Movie Review: VENOM (2018)

The other day I saw the movie Venom with a friend at Atlantic Station right here in Atlanta, GA. Although the reviews were for the most part not very good, it did look kind of cool and he wanted to see it. I've historically been a superhero fan, although X-Men was more my thing than Spider-Man (I think I only owned one Spider-Man comic--it was part of the Clone Saga I think), so I decided to give it a shot.

So how was it? Let's find out...


The Plot

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is a crusading journalist in San Francisco living with his fiancee Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) and covering stuff the local powers-that-be would rather not get discussed. His going off half-cocked after Elon Musk-esque Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) with information he shouldn't have costs him his job and his relationship, leaving him living unemployed in a slum.

Then a whistle-blower at Drake's company Doctor Dora Skirth (Melora Walters) contacts him about some shenanigans going on at the laboratory. Eddie sneaks in and accidentally bonds with an alien Symbiote, becoming more than human and more than a little bit hungry for live prey. Now he has to evade Drake's men and figure out what's going on, but there's more than one Symbiote out there...

The Good

*The dynamic between the Venom Symbiote, an alien predator who initially views his human host as nothing more than a "ride," and act-before-thinking do-gooder Eddie is absolutely hilarious. Seriously, I spent the last half or so of the movie laughing my head off. I can tell because I suffered a compression fracture in my spine over the summer that hasn't fully healed and consequently that hurt. Seriously, that is absolutely the best part of the movie and I'm glad the film has made so much money that there has to be a sequel. I want to see more of that.

*I like Tom Hardy's portrayal of Eddie Brock. He clearly wants to do the right thing, but doesn't really have good judgement and it costs him. And then he has his hands full trying to manage an intelligent alien predator with a really sadistic sense of humor that's sharing his body.

*I like how they took elements from the different Venom storylines to put together this one, especially since for whatever reason (rights, contracts, etc) they couldn't have Spider-Man in it. I'm not going to go into a lot of details about which plots got used to avoid spoilers, but one is definitely "Lethal Protector", in which Venom decides to become a superhero.

*Ahmed is very good as Drake. He's charismatic and seems to generally have good intentions, but he's incredibly manipulative, amoral, and downright hissable in parts. Seriously, I was mad at him at times, and not a lot of movie villains straight-up anger me.

*Eddie's job situation rings true to me as a former newspaper reporter--if someone in the community has sufficient pull with the media owner, is a big enough advertiser, etc. they have an unhealthy amount of power over what gets covered and what doesn't. What happens with Eddie is what would happen if Elon Musk were to vindictively pursue a grudge against a local reporter who challenged him, especially if said reporter went off on him without evidence to back up his claims. And given how Eddie was "run out of New York" (an allusion to the comic plot in which Brock loses his job as a newspaper reporter, something he blamed Spider-Man for) and might not have a great reputation already, he's particularly vulnerable.

*I liked how the film handles the relationship between Eddie, Anne, and Anne's new boyfriend Dr. Dan Lewis (Reid Scott), who happens to be a gigantic fan of Eddie's news show. Their interactions are pretty funny and it show the essential decency of all three characters. Anne still cares about Eddie despite what happened earlier (seriously, even an alien monster takes her side on the issue), Eddie respects Anne enough not to resent her new boyfriend and never once thinks about letting his alien "friend" cause him harm, and Dan sincerely tries to help Eddie (whom he thinks has some kind of conventional illness) rather than get territorial. And Anne has some surprisingly bad-ass moments for someone not really established as an Action Girl.

*An alien monster has a character arc. Seriously, he (it?) does.

The Bad

*The movie takes awhile to get going. Things don't really start getting fun until around 1/4 to 1/3 into the film. They could have tightened things up a little bit, although I have no specific suggestions about what to cut.

*As David pointed out after the movie, some of Dr. Skirth's actions in regards to helping Eddie get the dirt on Drake don't make a lot of sense. For starters, Drake's lab is probably full of security cameras, so sneaking him in isn't going end well.

The Verdict

I'll give this an 8.0, barely. The sheer hilarity of the Venom-Eddie interactions outweighs a lot of the issues the movie has.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Eight-Legged Freaks (2002)

Back when I was in high school, I watched a lot of monster movies. I don't recall ever seeing Eight-Legged Freaks, at least in its entirety, but when the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood hosted a whole month dedicated to monster movies, I eagerly volunteered to participate in all of them.

So here's the podcast featuring Yours Truly. And now for the review...

The Plot

A toxic waste barrel falls off the back of a truck into a river and soon the spiders in the dying town of Prosperity, Arizona start growing "as big as SUVs." Yes, that's the specific ad copy. It's up to mining engineer Chris McCormick (David Arquette) and Sheriff Samantha Parker (Kari Wuhrer) to lead the townspeople in the fight to save their community. Along for the ride are Parker's daughter Ashley (a very young Scarlett Johanson) and nerdy son Michael (Scott Terra) as well as a bunch of quirky small-town characters.

The Good

*Some of the Parker family banter was amusing--Ashley vs. Michael, Ashley vs. her mother, etc. It seemed like how actual families would argue, either good-naturedly or, in some of the dialogue between Ashley and Samantha, not-so-good-naturedly.

*I liked some of the small-town goofy characters like Harlan (Doug E. Doug), who's basically a black Art Bell, the corrupt get-rich-quick-scheming mayor Wade (Leon Rippy), the overly-eager barber, and the female sheriff who uses her position to keep her teen daughter out of trouble. The acting is generally decent too--you can tell that Scarlett Johansson is destined for bigger and better things, Arquette is endearingly awkward and Adorkable rather than cringe-worthy when the lady sheriff is concerned, and although Wuhrer is generally known for TV and much more lowbrow fare, I didn't think she did a bad job either.

*There are also some amusing comedic bits here and there.

*Although one rarely watches B-grade monster movies for the science, I liked how they worked in how pollution travels up the food chain. It's not direct exposure to the toxic waste that causes the spiders to become giant monsters, but their eating bugs exposed to the toxic waste. Think how DDT got into animals birds ate and poisoned their eggs. That's a lot more likely to cause mutations and issues that exposing the animals in question to the toxic substance directly.

(Note to self: Pitch a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot where the turtles aren't directly mutated by the ooze, but hatch from eggs laid by a mother turtle that had been eating ooze-affected bugs and what-not.)

*There's a fight involving a cat and a mutant spider that's mildly amusing.

*At one point the soundtrack includes "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" done in the style of "The Imperial March." That was pretty amusing.

 The Bad

*The movie gets off to a slow start. Things don't start getting interesting until the first mutant spiders show up. It's generally not that exciting of a film, despite a few good bits.

*The CGI has not aged well, and there was better CGI in much older movies. Seriously, the original Men in Black was in 1997, as was Independence Day. Yes, I know this is supposed to be goofy rather than a serious scary movie (and they probably weren't exactly swimming in cash), but the script and acting fulfill that function nicely--there was no need to go cheap on the effects. Gremlins, which this film resembles in some ways, had better effects back in the 1980s with all puppets. Seriously, given how quality puppets (think the original Pumpkinhead) are probably expensive, just have one or two types of spiders instead of so many different kinds and make only a few puppets rather than polluting what could have been a campy send-off of Them! with lots and lots of annoyingly crappy CGI.

*There's a joke I'm not going to go into detail for reasons of spoilers involving Sheriff Parker's efforts to keep Ashley out of trouble that, the more you think about it, makes her back-story a hell of a lot darker and less funny. Even if the joke itself and its successor jokes are pretty funny at first.

*Too many fade outs.

The Verdict

Better than a Sci-Fi Channel (or SyFy as they like to call it these days) original movie, but that's not saying much. A higher budget and better acting doesn't make it that much of a better movie. The thing that came to mind was Gremlins with worse special effects and a more mediocre cast, despite being made a full generation later. 6.0 out of 10.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

More Thoughts on the 1998 Godzilla Remake (Some Spoilers)

Re-watched the 1998 American Godzilla for Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. I watched it (and reviewed it) as an adult rather than a middle-schooler many years ago, but I'm giving it a second look rather than being lazy and just using my old movie review. Here's the podcast.

Instead of a second review, however, I'm going to post some thoughts as we go along, in rough chronological order. Some spoilers, since these are more live podcast notes than a movie review/spoiler-free analysis. You might see some of these comments on the podcast, although others are things I never got the chance to say:

*The filmmakers clearly put some thought into logistics--namely how does a creature this darn big sustain itself? Cold-blooded animals can get significantly larger than warm-blooded ones. Godzilla, being a giant mutated marine iguana or Komodo monitor, is likely cold-blooded and consequently wouldn't need to eat as much as a warm-blooded creature of equivalent size, but he's still going to need to eat a lot. There are multiple scenes of Godzilla attacking fishing boats and major battle sequences are centered around using food as bait. This critter is clearly something that requires a lot of calories and the filmmakers actually acknowledged that.

*Per the above, I liked the 1998 Godzilla's design better. It looks and moves like an actual real animal that just got a hell of a lot bigger.

*Matthew Broderick's acting is fine, although his character Nick spouts way too much techno-babble that doesn't really make a lot of sense. He also makes a lot of assumptions based on very little if any evidence. One would hope a trained scientist would be better than that. However, although Maria Pitillo (who plays aspiring television reporter and Nick's ex-girlfriend Audrey Timmonds) got nominated for a Worst Actress Golden Raspberry Award, I really had no problem there. It's not like she had poor delivery or came off as fake the way Hayden Christiansen did in the Star Wars prequels, especially Revenge of the Sith. Seriously, he was so incredibly annoying, especially in Revenge when he's supposed to be this battle-hardened general and leader of men. And Hank Azaria and Arabella Field, who play an Italian couple Audrey works with at the news station, were hilarious.

(It turns out neither of them are actually Italian, which was a surprise. Both of them are New Yorkers though.)

*Nick and Audrey clearly still have feelings for each other--he still has pictures of them from when they dated in college eight years before (some of my fellow podcasters thought that was a bit creepy) and she immediately runs to the TV when she sees him on it, so there's still feelings for him on her end too. They're showing, not telling, which is good. Why did they break up in the first place, especially since they dated for four-odd years? The only notion I got is Nick's comment about being too busy when a female scientist (who clearly has the hots for him) asks about his love life, which suggests that perhaps he spent too much time on science and ignored Audrey, but she admits that he proposed to her and she basically ghosted him. Yeesh.

*I liked the French characters and yes, I found their constant complaining about American food funny. The DGSE in real life are pretty hard-core. No cheese-eating surrender monkeys here.

*Roland Emmerich had a beef with movie critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, so he plugged in a fat "Mayor Ebert" and his put-upon skinny assistant. Yes that's extremely petty, but the characters are also pretty funny.

*Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer) is even more slimy this time around, and he was pretty damn slimy last time. Treating Audrey as his personal minion for years without any possibility of promotion unless she sleeps with him (and he's married too, making him an oathbreaker on top of "just" abusing his position), excluding her from important news business in a blatantly sexist way, and finally stealing her story. What a piece of trash.

It's a pity he didn't enjoy some appropriately unpleasant ending--him suffering the legal consequences for Audrey's stealing military information (since he stole her story it'd be easy for Nick and Audrey to just let people assume he was the one who stole the tape), his boss firing him as a condition of keeping Audrey after her revealing the nest and getting an exclusivity promise from Nick makes her the most sought-after TV reporter on Earth, or him just getting stepped on or have a building fall on him would have been perfect. Again, what a piece of trash. Godzilla isn't evil because he (she? it?) is an animal acting according to its nature, but Caiman's bad behavior is a choice.

(Especially stealing Audrey's story, which based on how he was looking at her when she claimed the story was hers was at least partly because he was mad at her for disobeying him and/or showing him up, not just because he wanted the scoop himself. And Caiman deliberately named Nick as the source of the story rather than doing the sensible thing as a journalist and keeping him anonymous--did he view Nick as a sexual rival and want to destroy him? Someone kill this man please.)

*The CGI isn't nearly as good as I remember it being. In fact, there's one scene where Godzilla ducks some missiles where it looks really fake. Seriously, we're talking the model going gray here. How did they not notice that when they were finishing up the film?

*Who leaves around top-secret VHS tapes labeled "top secret"? Seriously these guys' OpSec sucks.

*So many infantry with grenade launchers and assault rifles vs. something the size of a blue whale on legs. Cloverfield did it better--when the kaiju come to New York City, the tanks come out. LOTS of tanks, not just one or two. The 1990s New York National Guard might not have the same firepower as the U.S. Army, but given there's a dinosaur (okay, a mutated marine iguana, but close enough) trashing the economic center of the state, I imagine everything with a gun caliber the appropriate size is heading that way. And can nobody hit anything? Yeah it's quick, but it's still pretty huge.

*The Bible (Acts 26:20) says to prove your repentance by your deeds and I imagine following your ex-boyfriend whose career you just wrecked because your loudmouth friends encouraged you to be  aggressive and mean against your own inclinations into dinosaur hell to help save New York City counts. Not exactly the cheap grace that Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against here--she didn't just cry a bit and get Easily Forgiven.

And although Nic (podcast host) really doesn't like Audrey, I'm inclined to disagree. Yes, she abused Nick's (the scientist) trust and lingering romantic feelings to advance her career at his expense and that's a bad thing, but she put her life at risk to try to fix it. And if she hadn't, the military would have never learned where the nest was (since Nick and the French guys wouldn't know how to operate the broadcast equipment, assuming they didn't get eventually eaten) and there'd be Radioactive Dinosaur Apocalypse. So yes, she was selfish and exercised extremely poor judgement, but she also helped save the planet.

There's a whole bunch of stuff here about how heroes need flaws, and other than being a dork married to his job, Nick doesn't seem to have any. Meanwhile, Audrey and Animal (Hank Azaria the cameraman) have problems standing up for themselves and Animal's wife Lucy is domineering and doesn't take responsibility for others following her bad advice. Audrey's sneakiness and selfishness is much more of a character flaw than being overbearing or spineless.

Verdict: Flawed, but still better than the 2014 Godzilla film. And I'm not the only one who thinks that.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Tinkering With Novella Price Points

Last year thanks to my regular listening to The Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing Podcast, I became acquainted with Lindsay Buroker, in particular the Kindle Worlds program for her Fallen Empire science fiction universe. I helped codify/solidify some of the background material for the primary series and the next-generation spinoff A Sky Full of Stars and wrote two military-SF novellas set during the rebellion. Those were Ten Davids, Two Goliaths and Discovery and Flight, the latter of which is explicitly tied in with her short story "Remnants." I even put together the TVTropes page.


I was planning on writing more novellas, including a straight-up zombie story (a biological weapon that gets out of control) and a Starseer story inspired by the Star Wars Darth Maul fan film Apprentice. However, Amazon shut down the Kindle Worlds program, even though based on the royalties I was getting it seemed to be doing pretty well. Fortunately Ms. Buroker let me re-publish the novellas via KDP and other KW authors are doing the same.


Of course, as an independent writer, I'm responsible for all the decisions, including how to price it. Initially I priced both novellas at $2.99 in order to get 70% royalties, but in the original KW program novellas were $1.99. In addition, many more successful authors price their novellas at $1.99--Marko Kloos' novella Measures of Absolution is $1.99, while Delilah S. Dawson's Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance is $1.99. James R. Tuck's Deacon Chalk novellas are only available in audio now, but I believe they were $1.99 in e-book as well. Some novellas are priced even less.

I did make some sales at the higher price point, but I would obviously like to make more even if that means a 35% royalty instead of a 70% one. Three sales at $1.99 generates a little over the same royalties as one sale at $2.99, so if I quadruple my sales, I'm ahead. The fact I've created an Amazon AMS ad for Ten Davids, Two Goliaths will surely help.

To that end, I have set the price for both novellas to $1.99. If this proves successful, I'll leave them there. If not, back to $2.99 they go. I'll give it a week. If you come across this blog post after October 7, 2018 and the price is $1.99, you'll know that reducing the price did increase the quantity demanded.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: V for Vendetta (2005)

The movie V for Vendetta and I have a long history. I don't remember seeing it in theaters when it came out, but I do remember using it as the basis for an opinion column I wrote for the University of Georgia student newspaper The Red and Black about the dangers of government surveillance and overreach in the age of terrorism.

It got a lot more personal when I studied abroad in Great Britain in 2006. I, like many other tourists, got caught up in the liquid-bomb scare, which broke out the night before we were going to leave to return home. My flight home had to wait for several hours on the tarmac at one of the London airports while we were all being background-checked. I had to pack up the books I'd bought in Oxford for the trip home rather than bring them on the plane. I could have bought new books at the airport bookstore, but at the time I thought the ban on all carry-on items not bought at the airport was a scam to make people buy all-new products and unnecessary to protect the security of the flights, so I didn't. Fortunately the airplane's televisions were on and I watched V for Vendetta as well as a significant chunk of The Wind that Shakes the Barley and at least one Doctor Who episode dealing with the Cybermen. I ended up watching the movie at least twice.

Now 12 years later, Myopia: Defend Your Childhood is doing a series on films people thought were So Profound when we were in college, to see if they still hold up. V for Vendetta was one of the films, and I made sure to appear on it. I may have mellowed out a little on politics since college, but governmental overreach in the name of fighting terrorism, a war, etc. is still a personal bugbear. Here's the podcast. Now for the review...


The Plot

Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) works for the British Television Network, a successor to the British Broadcasting Corporation in Great Britain. In an age of peril--the United States has fallen into civil war and there's been at least one global pandemic--Britain has turned into a police state under the rule of a "High Chancellor" Adam Sutler (John Hurt) and his Nazi-like Norsefire Party.

Sutler's regime, however, is challenged by the mysterious V (Hugo Weaving), a terrorist with near-supernatural fighting abilities who disguises himself as Guy Fawkes. V blows up Old Bailey on November 5 and vows, a year later, to blow up Parliament itself. Evey finds herself mixed up in the whole situation when V rescues her from some rape-inclined "Fingermen" (secret police) and ends up staying with him for an extended period. Meanwhile, some ordinary British police assigned to help investigate V find themselves stumbling onto a conspiracy dating back all the way to the founding of the Norsefire regime.

The Good

*There's actually quite a bit of intertextuality in the story, some overt and some more subtle. V's campaign against Sutler's dictatorship, though driven by the ideological belief that governments should fear their people and not the other way around, also has a strong element of personal revenge. The Count of Monte Cristo shows up repeatedly throughout the film. I also noticed a strong resemblance to the story of The Phantom of the Opera, especially the more Phantom-sympathetic interpretations--a pretty young woman falls under the thrall of an older disfigured genius and it's not completely non-consensual on her part. I can appreciate thoughtfulness.

*The script was well-done. I rather liked V's introductory speech and the vocabulary he uses. Very impressive.

*I also liked the acting in general. I don't think there's a bad delivery in the whole film. Hugo Weaving and Stephen Fry are particularly impressive.

*There's a really well-shot scene involving dominoes.

*V's strategy as a terrorist makes sense. Terrorist organizations often try to trick governments into overreacting and driving people who would otherwise not support the terrorists to do so. Some of V's schemes involve this.

*In the comic, the Norsefire government is able to seize control of Britain after the country abandons its nuclear weapons, causing it to avoid being nuked during World War III. Even without getting nuked, Britain would be cut off from world trade, inundated with massive flows of refugees, and subject to possible climactic disruption, and I could imagine that kind of crisis spawning a dictatorship. However questionable that proposition is in the first place--West Germany and other mainland European states part of the NATO alliance didn't have independent nuclear capability and they were going to get trashed regardless, plus the Soviet government has had a grudge against Britain from the beginning--that obviously needs to be updated. The descriptions of how the world and the United States in particular--which would not tolerate such a regime taking over one of its closest allies--are in a state of chaos are small and subtle, but they work for story purposes.

*Britain has an extensive security-camera surveillance system. The film shows how easy it could be used to track down enemies of the state (much like the film Enemy of the State, in which our own much less overbearing system is used for the same purpose) as well as stop crime.

*The subtleties of a British (or specifically English) fascism are well-done. The official action hero is named Storm Saxon and he's depicted as rescuing a British woman kidnapped and tortured by a caricature of an Islamic extremist, regime propaganda is delivered by something obviously based on the BBC, the Anglican Church is promoted heavily, etc.

The Bad

*Waaaay too much 9/11 Trutherism in the film. I'm not going to go into more detail for reasons of spoilers. It is entirely possible for a government to overreact to a legitimate danger rather than "there are no dangers and any 'dangers' are straw enemies to justify seizing power." The Japanese Internment doesn't mean the attack on Pearl Harbor didn't happen, the 1944 Sedition Trial doesn't mean the Nazis weren't dangerous, and McCarthy's excesses doesn't mean there weren't Soviet spies in the U.S. government. That was my single biggest beef with the film, as it undermines its credibility as a warning against government overreach.

*The movie drags a bit in the middle before things start ramping up toward V's endgame.

*We get a second "homosexual persecuted by the regime" story later in the narrative when we've already been given one, although to be fair, the second is more vivid than the first. Given how Norsefire is explicitly English-supremacist and a character having an Irish mother is brought up to threaten them, perhaps one of the two persecution narratives could be swapped out with a real or suspected IRA sympathizer? Even the democratic British government violated the rights of Catholics in Northern Ireland during the fight with the IRA, and I imagine Norsefire would be even uglier. Or to create an even more sympathetic victim, someone totally unconnected with terrorism who's a little too publicly proud of their Irish or Scottish heritage for the regime's taste?

(There's also a timing issue as to when homosexuals start getting persecuted that I'm not going to get into for reasons of spoilers. Making the second victim into someone falsely accused of being an IRA supporter for advocating for Catholics' rights in Northern Ireland and keeping the first victim as-is makes more sense chronologically, given the origins of the Norsefire regime, when it takes power, and when it starts persecuting different groups. Another alternative: Perhaps the second victim could be a Muslim falsely accused of being a terrorist? A prominent Norsefire official served in the military in various Middle Eastern places before the regime took power, so that's where he could have gotten his guinea pigs. Given how the film is a cautionary tale against anti-terrorist overreach, perhaps a Muslim victim would have been too on-the-nose, or the suits would have thought bigoted consumers wouldn't see the movie. I remember people complaining about a character having an illegal Koran, so that might've pushed them further along the boycott-denounce road.)

*The sense of time gets a little wonky toward the end. How long is Evey with V?

*Given some of the stuff that happens to Evey in the film I would expect her to be a lot more screaming-angry than she ends up being. Her reaction comes off as really understated. Natalie Portman can do better angry than that. Hell, she sounds angrier here when she's rapping on Saturday Night Live.

*Per the above, what happens to her would realistically require multiple people to pull off, not just one. Not going into more detail for reasons of spoilers.

*The back-story for the Norsefire regime on the level of Britain itself starts breaking down once we get deeper into it. Sutler is depicted as being a powerful Conservative politician with Nazi-esque banners, marching paramilitaries, etc. even before the St. Mary's plague that threw society into crisis and swept Norsefire into power. That he'd even get that far seems extremely unlikely--the British National Party suffered quite a bit when they got prominent enough for their then-leader Nick Griffin to get a spot on the BBC show Question Time, where he showed himself to be an idiot. And the BNP was trying to avoid looking like a bunch of Nazis. Sutler's crew is even more overtly evil than the BNP--they would have been marginalized (and potentially outlawed if they did more than prance around) and Sutler would never get into the position he was in before the St. Mary plague breaks out. And if he's not part of the British government (no more details for reasons of spoilers), the whole story doesn't work.

*Historical accuracy problem: Guy Fawkes was not a freedom fighter trying to overthrow an oppressive regime. He was part of a scheme by some English Catholics to re-impose the Catholic monarchy on an increasingly Protestant country. Yes, the British government was persecuting Catholics and that's not cool, but assuming the plan even succeeded--rather than provoking an even more extreme anti-Catholic backlash--the resulting government would have had to become oppressive simply to stay in power and keep its conspirators alive. We're talking Inquisition-level stuff here. Fawkes has more in common with Osama bin Laden than with V, even if V is borrowing his aesthetic.

The Verdict

Good, but could be better. I'd have liked it a lot better without the 9/11 Trutherism. 8.0 out of 10.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Donnie Darko (2001)

Back when I was in high school I rented a movie called Donnie Darko from Hollywood Video in East Cobb back when there was such a thing. I can't remember why, but one of my Quiz Bowl friends was really into indie films and perhaps he recommended it. I remembered actually liking it, or not disliking it, but I haven't seen it since.

Well, then Myopia: Defend Your Childhood booted up the "Cool in College" month in which we watched movies that we (or our peers) thought were so profound back in college to see if they were still thus. I rented Donnie Darko from Videodrome, the last video store I'm aware of in Atlanta, and off we went. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...


The Plot

In 1988, troubled teenager Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) begins hallucinating a humanoid rabbit creature named Frank. This leads into a convoluted tale of time travel, young love, and mental illness.

The Good

*The performances are generally good. I particularly liked how they cast real-life siblings Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal as brother and sister. That makes how they relate to each other more authentic. Jake as Donnie conveys both mental illness (I think the film establishes that he's a paranoid schizophrenic) and a sweet side that his sickness obscures. And although the character Kitty Farmer is utterly obnoxious, Beth Grant does a good job with her intensity and moralistic fixation. Per her Wikipedia article she gets cast as religious nuts and rule-sticklers a lot, so that makes sense.

*The opening scenes of the film show rather than tell the Darko family's troubles. Mr. and Mrs. Darko have problems managing their mentally ill and possibly dangerous son, while their older daughter Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) rebels against their traditionalism by voting Democratic.

*The film takes place in 1988, which I didn't remember from when I watched it. I liked how they got a lot of the details right--the TVs are square and wood-paneled and the gas can that a character uses to commit arson is the exact same color and pattern of the gas can I remember my dad filling up the lawnmower with back in the day.

*The ending is legitimately sad. That's one reason I didn't like the movie--it actually made me somewhat depressive for a bit--but it shows skill on the filmmakers' part. In particular there's a conversation or speech Donnie is involved in/makes that reminded me of the iconic quote from A Tale of Two Cities:

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

*Two of Donnie's friends wish they had a "Smurfette" as part of their group. Although their main focus is sex--there are a lot of people who need to get their minds out of the gutter on the issue of there being one female Smurf and a bunch of male Smurfs--ironically that comes true at the end when Gretchen (Jena Malone), a new girl in school who becomes Donnie's girlfriend, accompanies Donnie and his crew on an adventure.

*Per the above, there's some good examples of foreshadowing here and there.

*There's some stuff that's legitimately funny.

The Bad

*The film is incredibly, incredibly BORING. Seriously, it was a chore to stay focused on the movie for large stretches of it, even though I needed to do in order to discuss the movie for the podcast. There's apparently a director's cut that's twenty minutes longer! Hopefully it's dramatically re-edited so it's not so boring and makes more sense.

(Based on what Lauren said on the podcast it sounds like that was the case. In that case, here it is.)

*I don't remember not understanding the plot when I saw it in high school, but I definitely had problems understanding it now. Maybe it was hard to pay attention enough to "get it" because it was so boring or maybe there's some other reason, but I didn't understand it and that's a problem. I'm not against movies that require me to think, but there's that and there's this confusing morass.

*Donnie befriends Gretchen by helping her get away from a couple slimy guys and walking her home, but along the way he acts really weird and creepy (recounting burning down an abandoned house, for example) and ends with basically asking her to be his girlfriend. And somehow it works. Given Gretchen's history of familial abuse, I had trouble believing this wouldn't immediately trigger her danger alarm. Donnie is sweet in many ways but he's also mentally ill and unstable. This is not going to end well. Many young people have poor romantic taste and Gretchen perhaps saw the good in him and thought perhaps she could fix him. Again, this is not going to end well.

*Drew Barrymore plays the school's English teacher and she didn't impress. She wasn't bad per se, but she wasn't really that good either.

The Verdict

A dull depressing mess. 3.0 out of 10. Don't bother.