Friday, June 15, 2012

Attack the Block

Still a mite zingy from seeing birds and clouds between my feet today at Six Flags (grass-sky-grass-sky...), took in "Attack the Block" on demand. There's been MUCH buzz about this one since last Summer when it opened 18 theaters.

Believe the buzz. This is as tight and raw and honest a B-movie as you'll ever see. An alien infestation in the heart of a South London slum --I mean Community Housing Project--, with no one to beat it back but a group of very young street kids, hardly paragons of virtue themselves? The only thing resembling a Learned Scientific Infodump device is Dude-like pot dealer Nick Frost and his profoundly stoned buddy, with whom he zones out on National Geographic? Do I really need to say more?

Nordling here from AICN lays it out (and yes, of course there's a language warning, It *iS* AICN, after all). This is the kind of flick across which we film geeks sit through hillocks of explosives-grade fertilizer in hopes of stumbling.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

[by Mr.Hengist]

Several years ago my good friend Noocyte started this blog and asked if I would like to contribute to it as his co-king - I mean, co-blogger. I accepted, with gratitude, but not without some reservations. It's not like the idea of blogging had never occurred to me, it's just that I wasn't sure what I'd have to say - or, worse yet, I'd have so much to say that it would become one giant time sink. It turned out to be more satisfying yet more work than I'd imagined, what with every post a struggle of revisions and rewrites.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for blogging I've decided it was time to have a place of my own - not that I'll have altogether that much to say, but "Echoes of Thunder" will be my place, which will be nice. It'll be on WordPress, which I'm hoping will be a better platform than Blogger. I've copied my posts from here to there because there are so many of which I am so fond that I just had to bring them with me. I've also decided to change my pseudonym from "Mr.Hengist" - a tongue-in-cheek self-depreciating tribute to the dual-natured character in TOS - to "Slab Hardrock", a tongue-in-cheek self-depreciating tribute to the MST3K riffs of "Space Mutiny".

My sincere thanks goes to Noocyte for his gracious hospitality and encouragement.

Saturday, June 9, 2012


(Some spoilers, but nothing which strays too far from what one could glean from the trailers)

Taking in the midnight showing of Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" on Thursday night into Friday (for which I was rewarded with a nice little promotional poster) I can now understand why Filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro has expressed reservations about ever getting H.P. Lovecraft's justly-beloved novella, "At the Mountains Of Madness" produced.  There is something decidedly Lovecraftian about the film, something wonderfully unnerving, in all the right ways.

After coming home from the film, I took the dog ('the Woofocyte?') for a wee hours' consitutional, under a brilliant starlit sky, frosted by a crisp, gibbous moon. On any other night, this would have been a serene, elevating sight. That night, however, the heavens seemed sinister, redolent with menace, haunted by leering eldrich specters which lurked in the inky abyss, the blood-freezing whispers of ancient, calculating intelligences, beyond the reckoning of any human mind which would not go mad at the misfortune of understanding them too well.

That's kinda the vibe of this thing.

The discovery that a host of ancient civilizations --with no possibility of contact with each other-- had adorned their walls with symbols depicting the same set of stellar coordinates prompts the mounting of a scientific expedition to plumb the depths of a great many mysteries. Some appalling things ensue. And some Very Big Questions are raised...and not especially tidily answered. It's not unlike if Sir Arthur C. Clarke had written 2001: A Space Odyssey, while under the influence of some really vicious hallucinogens...perhaps something derived from belladonna-like alkyloids (/gratuitous "Altered States" reference). It has a similar scope, partakes of a similar sense of awe and wonder. But its ultimate lessons (such as they are) sound a far more disturbing note on our prospects, should we choose to  pursue some questions too far.

The tone of the film is spot-on, crafted to induce a steadily-mounting sense of dread. Like in "Alien," the technology is presented in a way to make a geek bounce in his seat, but is just recognizable enough that we can see ourselves operating the controls...which only heightens the dread. The score is effective for the most part, with a main theme which evokes both wonder and warning. I would have preferred a more minimalist musical footprint, though, as it can be just a bit intrusive during some set-pieces. Seldom have I so mourned the passing of the great Jerry Goldsmith (all the moreso at the brief homage to his seminal "Alien" theme).

The visuals in "Prometheus" are simply spellbinding. It really does appear that we have reached the place where no story is untellable, where no image in the imagination cannot be convincingly committed to film. The ship is marvelously designed, rendered to perfection, and moves through space with a sense of mass and power and flawless physics. 3-D is often an afterthought, a way to amp up ticket prices, while intermittently jumping off the screen at you to go "BOOGIE-BOOGIE-BOOGIE" in your face. This is not the case in "Prometheus." The 3D is immersive and essential, by turns conveying a daunting, dwarfing scale to things, and a terrifyingly claustrophobic closeness to other things from which you would much prefer to keep your distance. I saw this in IMAX 3D, and I heartily recommend that you do likewise if you can. As a sensory experience, there is simply nothing about which I can complain in this film.

Michael Fassbender's performance as the "artificial person," David, is one of the highest of the high points of this film. The scenes of him roaming the halls of the ship while the crew rests in hypersleep are unforgettable, as he learns ancient languages, sinks perfect baskets while riding a bicycle, and emulates Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia. What if Commander Data were not governed by Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics? On the whole, he'd just as soon be helpful and agreeable toward humans. But of what would he be capable, were he "unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality?" David's innocent wonder and infectious curiosity are utterly disarming, at the same time that his altogether dispassionate view of the universe (and all who live in it) is chilling in the extreme.

Noomi Rapace's performance as Dr Elizabeth Shaw has gotten a bum rap in assorted circles. This is not, IMHO, just. The simplicity of her character is also its complexity: she is a Believer. She's the sort who never would have seen the "cookbook" thing coming. She speaks to our Better Angels. She is heartbreakingly slow to wake from her dreams, and that awakening is very viscerally shattering to her. The form she ultimately takes is both consistent and changed.  She is angry, but wounded and still not altogether without hope. She is not especially sophisticated, which is both her appeal and, I expect, the source of much frustration.

Charlize Theron's Vickers is a perfect embodiment of The Company, an icy pragmatist whose main priority is her own survival ("all other priorities rescinded"). Her character is, in many ways, more cybernetic even than David's, which makes one scene with the irresistible Idris Elba's Cajun Captain Janek (from whom I truly wish we'd seen more) all the more hilariously effective.

Noomi Rapace's partner and love interest, Charlie Holloway (played by Logan Marshall-Green) is also a truth-seeker, but his motivations are rather less pure than Shaw's. He has an occasionally over-the-top air of striving to dominate nature by wresting her secrets from her. He is, in short, something of a jerk, especially to David. His lack of empathy and insight leads to all manner of unpleasantness.

This last is one problem which many viewers have had with this story: people behave in irrational, stupid ways. At times, distractingly so. I do share the irritation with some of the choices which people make in this film, but --without giving too much away-- there is some sense to staffing this expedition with people who may not be the most disciplined and professional sorts. When things start to go Very, Very Wrong, these people do not exactly bring their A-Game...which acts to move things along with an increasing inevitability. Most of the characters are pretty superficially treated, but we do get just enough to fit them into the puzzle. I am more than willing to grant that such a large ensemble, if given a more full treatment, would have weighed down an already deliberately (if at times erratically) paced film to an excessive degree.

Some have complained that this film raises a number of questions which it does not then go on to answer. Duly noted and agreed. But, at its heart, this is not the sort of story which needs to wrap everything up in a neat little bow. There are some profound meditations at the core of this film, questions about our origins, purpose, and fate, questions which hinge on the motivations and priorities of forces so removed from us in space and time and sophistication that it would be the height of hubris to fancy that we could just Get To The Bottom of them (this is, in fact, the tragic flaw in Shaw's and Holloway's characters, and it bears reflecting-on that we should become too huffy at the thought that some mysteries remain mysterious!). Again, there is a strikingly Lovecraftian message that we puny humans meddle in the affairs of the Dark Gods at our extreme peril, regardless of the purity of our motivations.

In short, I do love this film...but not unconditionally. I do recommend it...but not unreservedly. As I've said, the pacing at times lurches and drags. The score is a bit too in my face at moments (nothing like the outlandishly obtrusive "Predator" score, mind you. But also nothing like the atmospheric "Alien" suite). Some characters never venture far from one-note stereotypes. On balance, though, there is much more here to love than to dislike, and nothing to hate.

Final note: this is NOT (merely) an "Alien" prequel. That would be rather like saying that the Old Testament was a prequel to the book of Mark. The conditions are set for "Alien," but pretty much as a side-note to a profound and ambitious science fiction story..which is what this is: a tale of macabre science fiction (not "horror," as such...though there are some decidedly horrific things which happen --parents take careful note!).

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Send In The Clones

Well, the Li'l Cyte has grown to the point that he can watch the Star Wars prequels (except for the last bits of "Sith"; still a mite too intense, those). As a result, I have recently had the chance to re-watch "Episode Two: Attack of the Clones" for the first time in years. Thus am I moved by whimsy to post herein a review I wrote for the movie in August of 2002.

Readers of these pages might be interested by this artifact of a period during which I fancied myself the Leftiest of Lefties, most Transnationalistic of Trasnational Progressives. Curious because, amid the predictable intimations of anti-corporate animus, there are suggestive foreshadowings of my current jaundiced views of bureaucracy, my mistrust of overcentralized political power. It appears that my political transformation may have occurred in soil already fertile for its emergence...

Anyway, it was nice to see this unjustly-maligned film hold up as well as it has.

REVIEW FOLLOWS (Moderate Spoilers)

First, let me speak to that timid, timorous voice of fractured expectations haunting our skulls since TPM. Shush! This is the movie we've coveted in the holiest of holies of dreams since millions of Ewoks (disappointingly) failed to be pulverized by a hail of superheated Death Star debris.

From the first moments after the disappearance of a crisp screen crawl, this film flies directly into its relentless quest to saturate our senses with shockingly delicious imagery. Gods below! What special FX! I can only imagine a wholesale re-staffing (or a group consciousness-raising exercise, perhaps involving some belladonna-like alkaloids) taking place at ILM!

Gone are the super-slick, lovely-but-affected `ILM grays.' This film is textured down to fractal levels of detail. It has grit. It has contrast. It has heat distortion from engine ports, glittering droplets of rain, hypnotically languid waves on a low-gravity ocean, quick, shaky photo-journalistic zooms during apocalyptic battle sequences with chips and scratches on helmets in the far background while hundreds of dust-smeared blaster bolts tear through heavy metallic hides of immense space ships and...


No words...should have sent a poet!

Typical. I had to start with FX. These are what immediately kicked me in the arse and convinced me that ILM had, once again, set the bar to an entirely new place!

What truly gripped me, though, was that there was actually a MOVIE attached to those blazing visuals. A damned good one. Who'd a thunk it?

This is a morally, politically, emotionally, and tactically complex film. Sure, it keeps you bouncing in your seats and yowling like Slim Pickens riding that bomb (short cut to mushrooms? Sorry.). What it also does, though, is tell a rich, layered, sobering, authentically moving tale. It is the story of things passing away.


Christensen's cocky, heedless, impulsive Anakin nails the archetype of the Brash Young Man with surprising subtlety. He's drunk on his power and youth, a True Believer in his myth of personal immortality, Icarus incarnate. He is a Buddhist's (or a Jedi Master's) nightmare! He covets. The pain of his love for Padme is palpable. We feel it in his hungry gaze. This is a boy struggling to find completion, and suffering because he seeks it always from outside himself. Obi Wan won't validate him (one wonders how a certain Middle-Eastern carpenter would have gotten along with his step-dad, Joe...), Padme won't look at him the way he looks at her, while a lost mother haunts his dreams. He yearns, and, when his longings go unmet, he rages. If he is occasionally annoying (and he is!), it is only because we KNOW him. He is an annoying PERSON, not an annoying part, or an annoying performance. We watch as he's maneuvered to the cliff's edge by his own grasping, and feel it, as he is ultimately undone by the strategic fulfillment of his heart's desires. There is characterization here like we haven't seen since TESB.

Mad Props to Ewan McGregor! The subtle, non-verbal homages to Sir Alec, first evident in TPM, are just a bit more prominent in this installment. He manages to convey a transitional stage in the maturation of this character which is never forced, never...impersonation. That young bloke can ACT! Obi Wan is focused, authoritative, and NOT to be trifled with. But, too-soon released from his apprenticeship by a star-struck Qui-Gon Jinn, he lacks the depth and experience to appreciate what is happening to his Republic...and to his apprentice. He is troubled by trends he can sense, but can never seem to divert. His fate is foreshadowed in one bittersweet joke, but also in his naïve declaration of victory at a very dark moment indeed.

As much of a disservice as it is to the many superb individual performances in this film, I need to talk about two doomed characters of a rather more abstract nature: the Republic and the Jedi Order. Their fates are joined, and the feeling of their deterioration pervades the film. They are set in their ways, confident in their power, and entirely blind to the rot growing from within. Only Yoda seems to see it. Imagine the Dalai Lama's rueful resignation as he watched the Chinese advance on his land. That's the sense you get from Yoda's surprisingly unobtrusive CGI face as he contemplates an Order grown so decadent as to declare primly that "if it isn't in the archives, then it doesn't exist." His gradual awakening to the fact of an end-game to whose beginning he'd been completely oblivious is a wrenching sight. He realizes that someone's manipulated the motivations and vulnerabilities of his Order, his society, and even himself, steering them toward choice point after choice point, positioning the players so that the only possible decisions are those which push them closer to their inevitable ruin. And he is sad.

(And he is one bad-ass little green dude with a saber. Nuff said.)

It's been said (Plato? Frank Herbert? Thucydides?) that democracies inevitably deteriorate into oligarchies...and that dictatorship is not far behind. Lest we huff and puff too righteously against such heresy, let us pause and contemplate the French Revolution's fate. Or else, just go see AOTC. Lucas' rumored disenchantment with, and grim prognosis for, the state of modern democracies is in full force here. The viruses which effect this fatal mutation in the Old Republic are the calcification and corruption of bureaucracy, the ruthlessly pragmatic avarice of banking and trade conglomerates, the crushing juggernaut of technocracies...all quietly subverted and maneuvered by the insidious (pardon pun) Will to Power. There is some extraordinarily mature (and eerily familiar) political commentary here, light years from the desiccated, two-dimensionally technophobic sketch of TPM. Machiavelli would be proud of the way in which, bit by bit, even the wise are enticed to give away power, ignorant -until it is too late- of how that power has been channeled into fewer and fewer hands, till the only one left is the one with the leash.