Monday, May 19, 2014

Godzilla - Cool Concept Lacks Engaging Story

Godzilla is one of those films that cannot be discussed at any length without giving away crucial plot elements and thereby undermining the suspense of the first hour or so of the story. Suffice it to say that in this new installment of the saga, humanity is faced with parasitic creatures whose origins, source of food, and mode of reproduction involve a very creative story-telling twist. And, if other monsters emerge from the sea, can Godzilla be far behind?

The film gets off to a very good start; however, once the basic premise is established, the plot becomes contrived, predictable, and ultimately pointless. The character development too is promising at first, but eventually slips into melodrama and takes up far too much of the story. The fight scenes are more reserved and stylized than in most action-themed movies, which ends up working very well; however, we actually see very little of the title character - Godzilla himself.

On the other hand, the special effects are truly excellent, the soundtrack is engaging, and the acting is fairly decent. But the film would need more of a story and more of the monster to truly make the show worth the price of admission.

IMDb Link

Friday, November 1, 2013

Ender’s Game - Deadly Story Comes to Life with Chilling Effect

Based on Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel, widely celebrated as one of the most significant entries in the science fiction canon, Ender’s Game envisions a future humanity preparing for renewed military conflict with an insectoid alien species, which had brutally attacked the human race 50 years prior to the start of the story. In order to exploit every possible advantage, the human military turns to child prodigies, among them Ender (Asa Butterfield) to find the right kind of leader to ensure the safety of Earth.

As the children are ruthlessly molded and manipulated by their trainers (among them Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley), the story raises a number of probing questions that are just as relevant today as they were 28 years ago, when the book was originally published. What is legitimate self-defense? At what cost is self-defense worth it? Should a society ever give free reign to its military to protect itself from harm? Who will protect psychologically those who protect the society physically? Is a kill-or-be-killed attitude ever justifiable?

Though the original story is substantially simplified, and some plot elements could have used a little more explanation, the film does a superb job of exploring such heavy questions, without becoming too preachy or melodramatic on the one hand, or two hopeless or cynical on the other. While Ender’s Game is a deeply philosophical work, and one that demands a great deal of reflection and discussion after the credits roll, the film is also a faced paced, action filled, visually engaging experience. The masterful special effects and the superb soundtrack both do much to bring to life for us Ender’s world. The excellent acting by the entire high caliber cast gives the film a psychologically gripping air, making the long story fly by quickly.

But though the film does not feel long to watch, its messages are worthy of extensive consideration. In recent year, Orson Scott Card has become alienated from much of the science fiction community because of his fierce opposition, rooted in his Mormon faith, to the gay rights movement. But Ender’s Game is a reminder that, through his science fiction work, Card has had a profound influence on elements of American culture. The book and the subsequent series have been a regular staple for sci-fi fans. Ender’s Game has been recommended reading in Marine Corps officer training and has been required reading in various schools. The film, without question, should be required viewing as well.

IMDb Link

Monday, October 7, 2013

Gravity - Overhyped Space Melodrama Falls Flat

From its first seconds, in which a written intro informs us of just how unimaginably inhospitable space is for human life (as if we didn’t know), the film Gravity is marred by a melodramatic and pretentious air, which persists, with no relief, all the way to the closing credits. The premise of the story, established in the first few minutes, is weak and uninspiring. The Russians shoot down one of their own satellites with a missile, causing a chain reaction that puts deadly debris in orbit around the earth, which in turn knocks out most other satellites, and damages all the space stations in orbit. Two astronauts on a spacewalk to repair the Hubble Telescope (George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) get stranded when the debris causes catastrophic damage to their space shuttle and kills the rest of their crew. Cut off from communication with Houston, having nothing but their spacesuits for protection, they must now find their way to safety somehow before they run out of air and heat, and before the deadly cluster of debris, having completed a loop around the earth, returns to kill them in 90 minutes.

The ensuing story is painfully predictable and thoroughly unimaginative, with every ponderous twist visible from a light-year away. Nor is the alleged plot helped by the over-the-top, mind-numbingly melodramatic music. Sound, we are reminded, does not carry in space, and even just a little silence in place of the soundtrack would have gone a long way. The dialog, of which there is mercifully much less than of the music, is, nevertheless, also beyond bearable. In fact, Gravity is perhaps the only film that would substantially improve if 100% of the spoken lines were cut.

The film is, moreover, clumsy and trite in its efforts to make us care for the characters. Neither Clooney, nor Bullock manages to create a persona even remotely likeable, whose struggle would draw us in emotionally as they face the challenges of space. Unfortunately, far from rooting for the success of the characters in their quest to return to safety, the audience might be tempted to hope for their demise, in order to put the pitiful story out of its misery. Clooney, we might say, is hit-and-miss in his movies, so we should not be surprised or disappointed when he falters. But, as Gravity unfolds, we also witness the sad and dispiriting spectacle of Sandra Bullock casting away her reputation as a once reasonably talented actress.

The special effects, we must admit, are genuinely impressive - but without actual characters, who really cares? The film, it is true, also succeeds in illustrating the dynamics of motion and inertia in a weightless situation, where only orbital gravity obtains. But the physics lesson is too dearly bought and could have been bettered proffered through a simple YouTube video.

References to other films, such as Alien, Barbarella, Jaws, and Mission to Mars, either come across as out of place, or have more the feel of theft than allusion. At the same time, Gravity could have benefitted considerably by learning from the psychological subtlety and emotional discipline of hard sci-fi classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Moon. But, alas, we are offered only paper-thin characters, flailing about frantically, as the tortuous 90-minutes of this travesty of story-telling slowly lumbers toward its eagerly awaited end.

In one scene, situated back on earth, a frog flits across the screen, adding a modicum of charm, a fleeting moment of something engaging to the tale. But, after all of the hype surrounding Gravity, I must confess that I would have expected a little bit more.

IMDb Link

Friday, September 27, 2013

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - An Insult to Good Parents Everywhere

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother purports to be a book about the virtues of Chinese parenting, especially as compared with Western models of raising children. However, a more accurate title for the book would be Confessions of a Sadistic Child Tormentor. Chua hides behind her race and ethnicity to glorify as parenting values years of psychological and emotional abuse perpetrated by her against her daughters. At one point she states:

Chinese parenting is incredibly lonely - at least if you're trying to do it in the West, where you're on your own. You have to go up against an entire value system - rooted in the Enlightenment, individual autonomy, child development theory, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - and there is no one you can talk to honestly, not even people you like and deeply respect. (Pages 160-161)

However, many Chinese parents have excoriated Chua for her thoroughly distorted portrayal of Chinese cultural values. What is more, by her own admission, even Chua's very strict Chinese parents, who had supposedly taught her her parenting methods, sought to stop her unremitting cruelty toward her children.

The book is full of contradictions. Chua vociferously proclaims the supremacy of Chinese ways, yet she married a Jewish man and decided to raise her daughters Jewish, which could have been highlighted as a beautiful example of multi-culturalism, but is instead overshadowed by her ceaseless exaltation of Chinese culture and her relentless ranting against the West. Nor does she seem to realize the irony that the United States whose values she so thoroughly deprecates provided her with the opportunities to have the lavish life she now leads. Chua, furthermore, loves to regale the reader with meticulous descriptions of her lavish life, while at the same time categorically denouncing Westerners for their materialism.

The book also appears to be fundamentally dishonest in one of Chua’s central claims - that, due to her Chinese parenting methods, her daughter Sophie was invited to play at Carnegie Hall at the age of thirteen. In reality, Sophie did not play in Carnegie Hall, but in a side auditorium, and performed not at the invitation of Carnegie Hall, but because she was selected for an event for talented youth through a competition, in which she was a paying contestant, organized by an outside group, which had rented the auditorium in question, as do many other groups. While the performance was, no doubt, still a great achievement for Sophie, Chua greatly exaggerates its significance in order to bolster her claims of parenting success.

Chua’s vision for success in life leaves much to be desired too. Her goal seems to be to win every competition, to be number one at everything one tries. But what about instilling in children a sense of virtue? What about teaching them values such as kindness, compassion, truthfulness, generosity? What about helping them become well-balanced, well-adjusted members of society? Chua gives such matters absolutely no consideration. In fact, throughout the book, Chua emerges as a profoundly arrogant, thoroughly shallow, deeply hypocritical, and completely self-obsessed snob, who would be a terrible person to even have a conversation with, let alone to share a life with.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Charming Tale Gets off to a Good Start

As a Tolkien fan who does not like Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I expected nothing good from his take on The Hobbit - but I was pleasantly surprised. Though the film is not without flaws, Jackson brings to life Tolkien’s tale with an atmosphere of charm and good-natured humor. At the heart of the success of this adaptation is the excellent portrayal of Bilbo by Martin Freeman (from the UK version of The Office), who strikes just the right balance between the comic and the serious throughout the film. He is assisted by the supporting cast’s equally superb depiction of the thirteen dwarves, whose characters are well developed and individualized. Cate Blanchett, furthermore, is as majestic as before in her role as Galadriel, Christopher Lee is just the right kind of creepy as Saruman, and once again, Andy Serkis makes for an excellent Gollum. Perhaps the only weakness in the cast is Ian McKellen’s portrayal of Gandalf. Is he too hesitant, uncertain, self-questioning as the wizard? Or can we find those traits in the Gandalf of the books too, in certain passages of the Tolkien canon? Tolkien fans (myself included) will no doubt debate the question extensively.

As in The Lord of the Rings films, Jackson does a phenomenal job at creating the feel of Middle-earth. The scenery, the sets, the costumes are all exceptional. True, the computer generated creatures look somewhat less than realistic, but that’s a short-coming of all CGI dependent movies.

At 2 hours and 49 minutes, the first installment in The Hobbit trilogy is admittedly lengthy, but the film moves at a good pace and does not feel long. Tolkien, among many other esteemable qualities, was a master dramatist, and Jackson gives the venerable author’s scenes just the right amount of room to take flesh. What is more, in this film, unlike in parts of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson seems more trusting of the power of Tolkien’s sense of drama and dialog, and refrains from sprucing up the more dramatic moments with unnecessary special effects.

The frequent battle scenes can feel a bit tedious at times, but they seem to be resonating well with the younger audiences for whom this film seems primarily intended. At the same time, the battle scenes, as well as the overall tone of Jackson’s interpretation, make the film much less of a children’s story than Tolkien’s original book, no doubt in order to connect the new trilogy more seamlessly with the earlier one. Jackson also introduces some extraneous elements to the plot, which, not too surprisingly, don’t work very well (it’s always a mistake to second guess Tolkien’s storytelling), but these are not major changes and can be excused in an otherwise well executed adaptation. In any case, Jackson deserves much credit for retaining (at least so far) the deeper, underlying philosophical themes of The Hobbit – the themes that give the story its true strength, and which serve to make this film much more than just a spectacular adventure flick.

IMDb Link

Monday, January 2, 2012

Paul - Sci-fi Spoof Falls Short

Two British, stereotypical sci-fi nerds (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) come to America for the Comic-Con convention, after which they set out on a road trip to visit sights sacred to fans of science fiction and to UFO enthusiasts. This pilgrimage takes an unexpected turn when they encounter an alien (of the little gray men kind), who had escaped from government custody, fearing for his life. Our British sci-fi buffs now find themselves in a mad scramble to help their alien friend in his quest to phone home and leave the planet, with sinister forces seeking to stop them.

Paul is not nearly as funny as it seems to want to be, though science fiction fans will find lots of clever references to the sci-fi canon. The Christian vs atheist debate of our culture is incorporated into the story, but both sides are inadequately presented. Christians, who definitely come out the losers, might object that many religious thinkers have woven evolution into their worldview, and have a far more nuanced and science-friendly perspective than this movie would give them credit for. On the other hand, atheists might resent the stereotype, which is often used against atheism and is embraced by the movie, that without religion there are no rules, there is no ethics.

But perhaps the biggest flaw of Paul is the horrendous special effects. The alien title character is entirely computer generated, and he is not at all convincing. He simply looks too fake, which is impossible to ignore, thereby marring an already pretty weak flick.

IMDb Link

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Color of Paradise (Rang-e khoda) - A Powerful Insight into the Life of the Blind

Mohammad is a young student at a boarding school for blind boys in Tehran. When the school year ends, and it is time for him to go home, his father, who lives in the picturesque Iranian country-side, tries to avoid bringing him back, so that having a blind child would not get in the way of his plans to remarry - however, he has no choice but to take his son home with him. Adored by his grandmother and his sisters, Mohammad has no problems integrating into village life. But his father seems determined to rid himself of his son, setting in motion a chain of events, which ultimately leads to an emotionally overpowering ending.

Director Majid Majidi's subtle, slow-moving, but irresistibly griping style is on full display. Using simple, everyday circumstances, he masterfully explores questions of psychology, sociology, and spirituality. His beautiful cinematography brings home with painful poignancy for the viewer the visual world that a blind person will never experience. At the same time, he shows us that with some accommodation from the seeing world, blind people can be high functioning members of society.

IMDb Link