VOD Movie Reviews: ‘The Martian’, ‘A Walk in the Woods’, & ‘Irrational Man’ (2016Jan14)

Thursday, January 14, 2016                                              12:45 PM

“The Martian” is Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the Andy Weir novel—I had just read the novel a few months back, so I was very jazzed to see a big-screen imagining of same—and this movie does not disappoint. I don’t know what it would seem like to someone who expected a straight action sci-fi pic—I think the movie was just as exciting as any of them. But the book, and thankfully, Scott’s movie, are both throwbacks to the age of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov—when the science-fiction was science first, fiction only as a palliative to help you swallow all the information. Even without the book’s realistic, exhaustive explorations of how a sole person can produce his own oxygen, water, and food—and how to turn a Mars habitat plus a Mars rover into a Mars mobile home—the movie is replete with technological and engineering problem-solving.

Mr. Ridley very ably constructs the story so that one can do what I used to do reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace—I just bleeped over all the long Russian names—and you won’t need to study hard to follow the gist of the story. But as I understand the book’s evolution, it was something of a thought experiment—and there are no evil aliens—so I’m glad the filmmakers embraced the Clarke-ian aspect of “The Martian”—a thoroughly engrossing and enjoyable movie.

Matt Damon seems genetically structured to play an astronaut—so that’s good casting. His character’s frustration with his music playlist, which the Commander had filled with only disco music, was funny in the book—it plays a far larger part in the movie—and skates the edge of letting us all feel the horror of being trapped alone on Mars with nothing to listen to but Gloria Gaynor’s greatest hits. (Not that I don’t love Gloria Gaynor—in moderation.) At nearly two and a half hours, there’s an awful lot to like (and learn) in this film. I find that much comes out of Hollywood these days, but we still have to wait a year or two for something really good to come out—especially in the sci-fi genre—and “The Martian” is one of the good ones.

20160114XD-TheMartian

“A Walk In The Woods” stars Robert Redford who, like Woody Allen, has been a big part of my cinematic life since the seventies—it also co-stars the equally familiar but more erratically-careered Nick Nolte. This movie was perfect for me in some ways—two old guys, grumbling about age, wondering what their lives had really been about, now that it’s too late to change them, and doing stupid stuff they’re too old for, because we never learn to stop liking the things we enjoyed—we just lose the ability. It’s definitely an older person’s movie—I can’t imagine a teenager sitting through it.

It made me proud in a way—the whole movie, I kept telling myself, “Hey, you’ve walked the Appalachian Trail—not all of it—but you’ve hiked alone through the cathedral of nature’s solitude.” Unfortunately, that thought was inevitably joined by the memory of how very long ago that was—and, worse yet, I couldn’t help thinking that those two geezers were still in better shape than I am—I couldn’t hike a half-mile, and don’t even ask about carrying a forty-pound pack on my back.

The cinematography was too beautiful to go unmentioned—but I hear that, since the movie, trail guides have been bitching and moaning about the sudden surge of wannabe hikers getting lost and needing rescuing on the trail. So, maybe the camera-person should’ve made it a little uglier—although, that’s a tall order. I’ve been, as I said, and despite all the rigors, the Trail is unendingly beautiful—awe-inspiring, really. Of course that poor little dirt trail is over-run after a movie like this—remember—it may be two thousand miles long, but it’s barely two feet wide in some places.

Still, “A Walk In The Woods” gave me a sudden thrill when it made me flash-back to my own time alone in Appalachian woods—I’d forgotten how magical it was. Plus, it’s always nice to see Redford on screen again—he’s pretty old now, but so am I. Great soundtrack, too.

20160114XD-AWalkInTheWoods

“Irrational Man” makes me wonder what Woody Allen has against college professors—they often feature in his stories, rarely to the benefit of their image. But this movie pretty much spells it out—there’s something suspicious about people whose career involves having a kind of absolute power over the most easily-manipulated group of people in the world—college students.

The best education teaches not what to think but how to think—a familiar adage that overlooks the fact that teaching someone ‘how to think’ is not an absolute act—there is bias in human thought. We speak of machines that think—and by inference we imagine our brains as computers. It is ironic that the greatest challenge facing developers of AI software is that the human brain does not perform mechanically—indeed, no one is exactly sure how we think. We certainly don’t think in binary—we know it’s some sort of messy, organic process—we know that brains are processing feelings, senses, and emotions while they calculate, plan, and reason—but we don’t know how.

Further, in “Irrational Man”, Mr. Allen shows us how easily intellectualism can devolve into a tool for rationalizing narcissism and immorality. But it also shows, in the Emma Stone character, how core beliefs can be held without any rational underpinning. It’s pretty right-wing stuff, for a leftist Manhattanite. While the story of a man who disappears up his own ass is fairly familiar territory, Woody Allen makes it into a Greek tragedy—I could have done with a few more laughs from a director famous for comedy—but at least he’s learned to avoid awkward pretension in his serious films, replacing it with his own style of seaminess.

The inexorable nature of Greek tragedy is not my favorite entertainment—if I want disaffection, disappointment, and confusion, I can have all that without turning the TV on. However, I can’t deny that I share the auteur’s belief that watching a movie is not a waste of time—that cinema has intrinsic value—particularly for someone as unbusy as myself. And Woody Allen makes a watchable movie—I just wish he’d consult me about the subject matter. Then again, he’d probably tell me to go make my own damn movies.

20160114XD-IrrationalMan

 

 

Reviews In Review   (2015Jun09)

Tuesday, June 09, 2015                                              5:10 PM

I’ve just finished reading:

“The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu,  (Ken Liu -Translator)

“(R)evolution” by PJ Manney  (‘Phoenix Horizon’ Book 1)

“The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi

And watching:

“Jupiter Ascending” (2015) –  Written and Directed by The Wachowskis and Starring: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, and Eddie Redmayne

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” (2014) –  Directed by Matthew Vaughn and Starring: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, and Samuel L. Jackson

[Note: the following three book reviews were published on Amazon.com yesterday]

20150610XD-TheThreeBodyProblem_byCixinLiu

In “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu, I was treated to some rare Chinese historical fiction, as the story involves both alien invaders and their contact on Earth—and, in a fresh take, someone on Earth other than an American establishes First Contact. The protagonist’s story begins with her childhood during the most horrific times of the many Reform movements that swept China early in the second half of the twentieth century. Starting that far back, we are given a small primer in modern China’s history and culture by the time the story’s climax reaches the present day.

But there’s more. There’s science too—radio astronomy, virtual-reality gaming, extra-dimensional manipulation, near-FTL travel, and a planet with an unusual orbit, to say the least, are only some of the highlights. Things get technical enough that I glimpsed one reviewer in passing, complaining that this book ‘read like a tech manual’—but I found it refreshingly reminiscent of Clarke and Asimov. This is still a nerd’s genre—if you can’t take the heat, you’re not going to enjoy the story.

The characters and relationships are, however, as fully fleshed-out as one could wish—this is no space opera—and the plot is so clever that I hesitate to give even the slightest of spoilers. You should discover this book for yourself. And—good news—it is the first in a series—so there’s even more to come!

20150610XD-(R)Evolution_byPJManney

In “(R)evolution” by PJ Manney, I found an entertaining and involving thriller based on the idea of nanotechnology used to facilitate the brain/electronic interface. While there is little new in the scientist who experiments on himself, or in super-secret societies that control our businesses and governments from the shadows of limitless wealth and power, there’s still a freshness to the storytelling that kept me turning pages until late into the night. Good writing, if not especially great science fiction.

20150610XD-WaterKnife(WHOLE)

“The Water Knife” by the reliable Paolo Bacigalupi is a story of a near-future America suffering through the destruction of the American Southwest due to water shortages. The draining of the aquifers, combined with the lack of snow-melt from the Rockies, leaves California, Nevada, Arizona, and displaced Texans all struggling in a world where rivers are covered to prevent excess evaporation. Water rights become life or death matters for cities Las Vegas, LA, and Phoenix, AZ—where most of the action takes place.

The ‘water knife’ is a euphemism for an enforcer of water rights and a hunter of anyone trying to access water without legal authority. Angel is one of the best, in the employ of the sharp female administrator of Las Vegas’s Water Authority, Catherine Case. He becomes involved with a hunt for a water-rights treaty granted to Native Americans—a priceless document so old that it would take precedence over all existing agreements—and in the process, becomes involved with a female reporter who’s gone from being an observer to being in the thick of the life and death struggle of everyone in Phoenix as the water runs out and the dangers only grow more unbeatable.

However, the most frightening thing about this novel is its basis in fact—much of the disastrous environment described has been warned of in a non-fiction book, “Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water” by Marc Reisner. That book was published in 1987, and much of what he warned about is starting to manifest itself—such as the present severe drought conditions in California.

Like most doomsday-scenario stories, “The Water Knife” describes people on the edge, people in trouble, and twisted people who take advantage of chaos to create their own little fiefdoms of violence and tyranny. I never read such stories purely for the goth-like rush of people being cruel and dark—but in cases where I feel the story will give insight into something real, I put up with it—especially from a writer as good as Bacigalupi. And this is an exciting, engrossing tale of intrigue, passion, and ‘history as a hammer’, for all its darkness.

[Here ends the text from my Amazon.com reviews]

Having just finished “The Water Knife”, right on the heels of “(R)Evolution”, I’ve had my fill of dystopian cynicism and game-theory-based ethics—or lack thereof, rather. “The Three-Body Problem” was the worst, however—a Chinese woman endures such a horrible childhood under the Red Revolution’s Reform Era that she wishes for aliens to take over the Earth—how’s that for misanthropic?

Science Fiction at its best can be wildly hopeful and uplifting but let’s face it—the vast majority of it deals with rather dark subject matter. I can only hope that my next read will have a little leavening of the stainless-steel truth in it. At heart, I’m a Disneyfied, happy-ending kind of guy.

In between, I watched a few movies. The latest include “Jupiter Ascending” and “Kingsman: The Secret Service”. Talk about dark!

20150610XD-JupiterAscending_TheMovie

“Jupiter Ascending” is a science-fiction movie based on the premise that Earth—that is, all the inhabitants of Earth—are just a crop being grown only to ‘harvest’. Our unknown alien overlords are just about to harvest (i.e. slaughter) the Earth’s population for the purpose of creating the ‘rejuvenation juice’ that makes them immortal.

Our only chance is a young lady who is surprised to learn that she is the genetic double of Earth’s former ‘owner’, a wealthy noblewoman of the alien master-race whose death left her planetary holdings to her evil son, including the fabulously overpopulated Earth. The evil son is none too pleased to learn that a mere Earth girl is capable of confiscating his prize planet—and the hunt is on. Helping the girl evade the evil son and realize her destiny is a grizzled veteran of the alien military special-forces who’s been unfairly drummed out of his squad.

Some romance between the two slips between the non-stop CGI laser-beams and space destroyers, but even with a happy ending, it’s hard to get past that nightmarish premise.

20150610XD-Kingsman_TheMovie

“Kingsman: The Secret Service”, being a more straight-forward action movie, might lead you to expect a lighter tone. But this Cinderella/James Bond story has several scenes of wholesale slaughter in hand-to-hand combat. Poor old Colin Firth ends up killing an entire congregation of a church—and while their preacher prefaces the scene with rankly bigoted ravings beforehand, it’s still not very enjoyable to see them all slaughtered for their ignorance.

The fight scenes (though in this context, I’m tempted to call them ‘slaughter scenes’) are so busy that the film has to freeze into slo-mo for each death-blow (or death-stab, or head-squish, etc., etc.) just so the naked eye can follow all the mayhem. This is one of the bloodiest films since ‘Reservoir Dogs”, but it has all the trappings of an arch re-mix of James Bond meets Agent Cody Banks.

The director seemed to have trouble fixing on a genre. Samuel L. Jackson is a chipper, lisping arch-villain; Colin Firth is a chipper, upper-class Brit in the style of Patrick Macnee in ‘The Avengers’ TV series; and Taron Egerton gives us a well-meaning but troubled English lad thrust into an unusual situation. But all the set dressing, style, and verve is drowned in a sea of blood that leaves little room for those delicious bits of comic relief that leaven the best action thrillers.

Having said all that, I must admit that as far as quality goes, these were two exceptional movies compared to the dreck that comes out of Hollywood most of the time. Had “Jupiter Ascending” had a gravitas more in keeping with its somber theme, or had “Kingsman” relied a little less heavily on squibs, they might have been great movies. As it is, they were merely good.

Review: “All Is by My Side” (2015Jan15)

20150113XD-Jimi_AllIsByMySide

(Just out on VOD:)

Jimi: All Is By My Side” (2013)  [originally “All Is By My Side”] 118 mins.

(A drama based on Hendrix’s life as he left New York City for London, where his career took off.)

Director, Screenplay: John Ridley

Starring: André Benjamin, Hayley Atwell, Imogen Poots

This bio-pic was fittingly obtuse in some ways, hard to follow—not unlike its subject. I’ve never been quick on the uptake—much of my favorite music is music I disliked on first hearing—and Hendrix certainly falls into that category. But the funny thing is that I appreciate and enjoy Hendrix more with age—and having seen this movie (and allowing for its being a cinematic work rather than a reference work, but nonetheless) I think Hendrix was too prolix and light-heartedly free in his music for the age of the super-serious, socially-conscious music stars such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan. That was certainly my youthful problem with him—so maybe I’m just projecting.

But being unlimited in what he could do with a guitar, his penchant for musical playfulness, flights of fancy, and unabashed abrogation of anyone and everyone else’s songs, styles, and techniques was to be expected. He was a virtuoso in a time after the recognition of virtuosity. His newer age had ‘discovered’ that emotional depth and spirit outdid pure expertise every time, but we (I was a way-too-serious ten-year-old on Long Island during Hendrix’s year in London) may have overlooked the fact that some virtuosi, such as Mozart or Chopin, were expert musicians as a side-effect of their unbounded talent and artistry—as was (is?) the case with Hendrix.

My confusion with tenses needs explaining—it’s just that musicians may die, but in our time, music lives forever; and it’s hard to separate the person and their music. If, when listening to Hendrix’s recording of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”, I lose myself inside Hendrix’s performance, is he not alive? But, that’s my issue—so I leave it here.

In my youth, there was a compulsion among some of my peers to analyze the lives of their musical heroes—as if the biographical data, no matter how trivial, always gave greater insight into the music they so revered. I was never reverential about anything—I was raised to ‘show respect’, which I quickly learned meant speaking and acting in such a way as to avoid getting beat up or killed, so I reserve my true respect for very few things, and even fewer people. I suppose those music-obsessive friends of mine bothered me because they were the exact opposite—too quick to give their respect, unthinkingly and completely.

But in this movie, which covers a pivotal, but single year in the life and career of Jimi Hendrix, I was shown that biography can indeed be a powerful way of granting insight into, if not the music, certainly the musician. How effective it is for those who only know the sixties second-hand, I can’t say—but that is neither the filmmakers’ nor my problem. I didn’t require the big-picture, historical back-fill—and I was tickled by all the little details, drenched with significance by their connection to his more broad-cast iconography.

André Benjamin does a great job, although I was given pause by one aspect of his performance. He depicts Jimi Hendrix as a thoughtful, gentle, infinitely peaceful dude—but then, in one scene (and I assume it’s historically accurate) his character, in a sudden rage, repeatedly smashes his girlfriend’s face with one of those old pay-phone phone-receivers—she ends up hospitalized. Now, either Mr. Benjamin, or Mr. Ridley, or someone—did a little image-buffing here, or there was a far more physical side to Jimi Hendrix than we see in the course of this film, outside of that one scene.

And it is remarkable that Hendrix’s past is well-indicated, that his childhood was not an easy one, nor his father quick to give approval (or able to) while also depicting his on-screen self, the product of that environment, as very self-contained, almost demurring. He is shown to be unusually sensitive, it’s true, and unstable in some ways, but extreme sensitivity, raised in a harsh environment, rarely produces the o-so-civil young adult portrayed through most of the film. But now I’m just spouting—is it the film, the history, or my own assumptions that raise the issue? Anyway, it just stuck out as a question, to me, plus I was shocked by the sudden savagery—which distracted me from the film. Is that too critical?

All in all, I was swept up by the experience (if you’ll pardon the pun). I won’t say I enjoyed it, because the story of Jimi Hendrix is not a happy story with a happy ending—and I do love happy endings. Based-on-fact films, however, are not famous for predictable, tied-in-a-bow endings—and I watch them for engagement and education, more than mere enjoyment. And “All Is By My Side” certainly succeeds in that sense.