Category Archives: Movies

Watching GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

GuardiansGalaxyPoster

Image © Marvel.

When I was young, and an avid science fiction and fantasy reader, I searched long and hard for anything on the large or small screens that gave me the same kind of fun as what I was reading. That changed with “200l: A Space Odyssey” and even moreso with “Star Wars.” Having seen this summer action adventure fantasy today, I can report that it delivers the fun. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s quite entertaining. I have to admit I’ve never read any of the comics it’s based on. I did read the early adventures of the character Star-Lord, but the version here is later and a lot different, as far as I remember. The other “heroes” were all new to me. I did enjoy seeing Thanos, one of Marvel’s best villains, well-handled here, as I’d bet his creator Jim Starlin did. For once the credits were generous, giving Jim and others creator credit, and listing many other comics creators too. Nice to see that. Of course, Stan Lee had his cameo as well.

The plot of the film is not particularly important or memorable. The interactions among the characters, in both serious and funny moments, was well handled and fun to watch. The effects were epic, but not particularly better than other recent action movies. At least there weren’t so many things going on at once most of the time, so I found things easier to follow than in other recent films. Yes, it’s full of action, but there are plenty of quieter moments, a good balance. No one character stood out for me as a favorite, but as a group, the leads were all fine. I was not as taken with Rocket, the CGI raccoon as some may have been, but he and Groot, the plant man, were well-crafted and played. In fact, at times I found them more convincing than Zoe Saldana as Gamora, who I didn’t feel was as believable in the quieter scenes. Chris Pratt as Star-Lord hit all the right notes for me, a good blend of funny and heroic while still being kind of a jerk.

In short, well worth seeing and recommended.

Watching FROZEN

Frozen

Image © Disney.

I hadn’t planned on seeing this in a theater, hadn’t read anything about it, but we’re visiting Ellen’s sister Ann’s family, and they invited us to go see it. I went in with no expectations, except that it’s a Disney animated feature, and I enjoyed the film a lot. Despite the Disney name, like “Brave” it feels more Pixar than Disney, perhaps at least in part because of Pixar’s John Lassiter directing. The story is only vaguely familiar, being “inspired” by the story “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Anderson. All they’ve really taken is the idea of a powerful and heartless queen of ice and snow. The rest of the film is new, and while it is a familiar Disney approach with two princess sisters, two handsome young men, a loveable animal companion (above) and comic figure (also above), there are enough new twists and turns to make it seem fresh. The animation is wonderful, my only complaint is that the young women have the extremely large eyes of manga characters, much larger than the men, something I found tended to distract me from the storytelling. There is magnificent animation and artwork based around snow and ice, lots of action (perhaps a little too much at times, but that’s the way films are these days), a good dose of humor, and fine characters that “act” convincingly. All well done, and the film is preceded by a new Mickey Mouse cartoon short that is truly an amazing blend of the oldest Mickey cartoons and new digital animation. I won’t spoil it by explaining.

Recommended.

Watching THE HOBBIT: DESOLATION OF SMAUG (No Spoilers)

DesolationofSmaug

Image © Warner Brothers Pictures.

“The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien has long been one of my favorite books, perhaps my very favorite. I first read it about fifty years ago, and I’ve read it many times since. Though initially on the fence about the Peter Jackson-directed Tolkien films, I’ve come to enjoy them a great deal, but part of that enjoyment comes from not expecting them to follow the books closely. In his three “Lord of the Rings” films, Jackson did stick closely to the book much of the time. His films are epic in scale, and that book is too, so most of what Jackson added there was more screen time to the battles and action.

With “The Hobbit,” the book itself is a smaller story. Yes, it does have some epic moments, but much of the book is more intimate and personal with a relatively small cast of characters: the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf are the core group. The story is lighter in feel too, with only hints of the larger troubles in the land of Middle Earth in general. Now, Peter Jackson and his writers, in deciding to make this a three-film series, clearly needed to live up to their previous trilogy as far as the epic scope and the action. This meant adding things. In the first Hobbit film the additions were most obvious in extra battle scenes and a few new characters drawn from hints in other Tolkien work, or made up whole, but I’d say it was about 75% close to the book.

“Desolation of Smaug” flips that around, I’d guess it’s about 25% close to the book. There are lots of new things in the storyline, large and small, from new characters (Evangeline Lilly makes an excellent elf maiden, but she’s new) to events that diverge from Tolkien’s narrative quite deliberately for storytelling reasons. Despite all that, I enjoyed the film, it’s a fun action-adventure ride, and Jackson and company clearly love the original books. The changes they make are always respectful and understandable, in my opinion. But everything has to be larger. More action, longer and more thrilling and more complex at every turn. I saw the “higher frame rate” version this time, and I have to say it worked really well for me. You can read about Jackson’s approach in THIS article, but I did find it easier on my eyes, especially when following quick movement. There were moments when it approached a live video feel, but that only struck me occasionally, mostly it just flowed smoothly. I’d recommend that version if you have a choice.

The middle film of a trilogy usually suffers from that placement by dropping us into and out of an incomplete story at both ends. The beginning of this one avoids that somewhat by adding to the beginning of the whole story: Gandalf’s first meeting with Thorin. The end, though, is abrupt and clearly “to be continued.”

In all, I had a fine time, and recommend the film, just don’t go expecting the plot to follow the book very much. Enjoy the ride you’re on instead.

Watching GRAVITY

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Image © Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.

When I was a child I devoured science fiction, and dreamed of someday going out into space. Now I feel I have, through this film. I’ve seen actual video of astronauts in space, but it’s always controlled, placid, distant. This film pulls you right in the action, not just through 3D but through an immersive and intense drama that makes the visual beauty of open space as real as the dizzying dangers of free-fall without any means of controlling your own spin and movement. It makes the cluttered, claustrophobic interiors of space vehicles and the impossible fragility of man and his artificial constructs very real as well. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are excellent in their roles, but it’s Bullock’s picture. She convincingly scrambles from one thin hope of survival to another while being bombarded with both physical and mental debris and roadblocks.

Reading the science fiction magazines, as I used to do regularly, there were some like “Galaxy,” “Worlds of If,” and “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction” that played with scientific ideas, but often fast and loose and far from reality. Then there was “Astounding,” later called “Analog,” that tried to keep things more real: basing their stories on proven science extrapolated a little into the future. No time warps, faster than light travel, aliens in flying saucers or fantasy. Their approach became known as “hard science fiction.” “Gravity” is the BEST hard science fiction film. I’ve ever seen. Parts of “200l: A Space Odyssey” came closest before this one, but “Gravity” is an amazing trip into what it’s really like out there. And that childhood dream of going into space? I think I’ll pass. It’s beautiful but oh, so dangerous up there!

 

Watching STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (no spoilers)

Star_Trek_Into_Darkness_32Image © Paramount Pictures.

I can sum it up in one word: AWESOME. The 2009 revamp by the same team of creators and actors set things up nicely to continue the Star Trek franchise into the 21st century, and with this film, director J.J. Abrams and his writers have firmly announced they’ll take second place to no one. This film also shares some important story elements and characters from the second film of the previous era, but re-imagined in great ways to make it seem fresh and familiar at the same time. In fact, that seems to be the miracle that Abrams is able to bring to these characters. Despite a whole new set of actors, some perhaps a little better than others in the roles we know well, there is often a dual feeling of freshness and familiarity throughout the film. I saw some things coming, especially character moments and lines, but only seconds before they arrived, and it made me smile every time. Many other plot elements were unexpected and yet felt perfectly right when they happened. The overall plot is clever, complex and emotionally rich. The effects are wonderful, but never dominated the acting except here and there in moments of battle. Mostly if felt like they were tools to help tell the best and most exciting story possible, as they should be. There are echoes from the franchise’s past everywhere, visually, yet none that interfere with the story or feel dated. It’s really quite a remarkable balance of old and new.

Before this I always thought “Wrath of Kahn” was a film that couldn’t be topped as far as Star Trek movies go. This one may not top it, but comes in a VERY close second. Highly recommended.