Review of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

[Please note:  I have not read the book on which this movie is based, so there will be no comparisons to the source material.]

There are certain types of movies that you understand will be bad from the first moment you hear about them, or the first glimpse you catch of a trailer.  The only question at that point is what type of bad they’ll be.  Sometimes a “bad” film ends up being so ludicrous that it crosses the boundary into the territory of the perversely entertaining.  More often, though, it is just soul-crushingly painful to watch, leaving you to question the worth of your own life by the time the credits roll.  Abraham Lincoln:  Vampire Hunter seemed like it had the potential to be the first type of bad, and was for brief moments…but ultimately it veered off to become the second.

So what was wrong with this movie?  As always, spoilers will follow, so don’t proceed onward unless you’ve already seen this film or are positive that you don’t want to.  But for those of you who don’t proceed past the gap, I’ll say this.  I am angry at the waste of an awful but entertaining concept.  I am baffled by the rushed and incoherent story.  Most of all, though, I am furious with the historical and personal liberties taken with the lives of Abraham Lincoln and those people who surrounded him, many of which didn’t need to be taken and some of which at times strayed into the offensive.

Now then, let’s have a look at that concept, shall we?  (more…)

Published in: on July 9, 2012 at 7:00 am  Comments (1)  

REVIEW: Mad Science Institute

Go back and read the title again.

Now that’s a high concept.

I periodically browse through the Kindle store for new novels to read and review.  On one such trip, I came across Sechin Tower’s Mad Science Institute.  Long-time readers know the dangers of judging a book by its cover.  But with that title on the cover, I thought, surely it would be worth an impulse buy.  Who wouldn’t want to read about a Hogwarts for budding Frankensteins and Moreaus?  And after reading the prologue, my opinion was confirmed – this was a book I wouldn’t be returning.  Then I set it aside and didn’t pick it up for a little while.  It wasn’t until recently that I finally had the chance to resume it.

As it turns out, it’s not quite the book I thought it would be.  Nor is it quite the book I think it could have been.  So I will confess to being a bit disappointed.  Only a bit, though, and don’t let that put you off buying it.  My disappointment is due to my taking the core concept and running with how I would have written it rather than any intrinsic demerits in the book.  For anyone who enjoys weird tales of mad science, this good effort should engage you.  There’s more than enough here to justify the cover price. (more…)

Published in: on June 15, 2012 at 10:48 pm  Comments (4)  

REVIEW: Prometheus

The first thing you’re likely to notice about Prometheus is the magnificent score by Marc Streitenfeld.  The title theme especially has strains of the questing heroic in it, as if it were trying to express the innate desire of humanity to break free from our natural shackles and finally find answers to the greatest questions ever posed.  It’s a masterful piece of music that simply doesn’t belong in this film, which is not so much dedicated to the proposition of asking the big questions as it is to being the film that finally answers the question:  What happened before the events of Alien?  That question, of course, is not so big.  At this point, it doesn’t need an answer.

The focus of Prometheus is disappointing for two reasons.  First, it was originally written to be a straight Alien prequel.  Then it was subsequently was it redrafted to feel more like its own film, a true science-fiction movie in the most exalted sense of that phrase.  The problem is that the story Jon Spaihts was originally hired to tell (the prequel) was so thoroughly reworked by the more original story of Damon Lindelof that the Alien bits now feel grafted onto a movie where they were supposed to be front and center.  Frankly, the film that occupied my attention for two-thirds of the running time is the film I’d rather see…the story about humans venturing into deep space in search of answers about our very existence is much more interesting.

Second, in answering the Alien prequel question, not only do the writers cop out of even offering hints at answers to the grander questions they invoke, they fail to provide real answers for many things that happen in the plot.  A person seeking to study the phenomenon Hitchcock labeled as the “icebox scene” should enthusiastically set to the task of studying Prometheus, which seems to offer them at a rate of one every ten minutes or so.  What keeps you from noticing them at the time is that the film is exceedingly well-directed, well-acted, and well-animated.  So much talent was assembled here to so compellingly present such a sloppy story.  It breaks my heart for the movie that could have been, if only the people involved had given up the Alien connection.  Still, I’m not sorry I saw Prometheus, even if it was ultimately less than I had hoped it would be.

Spoilers, as always, follow: (more…)

Published in: on June 11, 2012 at 11:44 pm  Comments (1)  

REVIEW: Snow White and the Huntsman

There comes a moment late in the film Snow White and the Huntsman, as Snow White (Kristen Stewart) is showing some actual passion in attempting to rally the last free troops in her kingdom to march against the evil queen (Charlize Theron) who murdered her father and usurped his throne.  I was starting to get interested in spite of myself.  After having been a fairly passive presence during the first three quarters of the film, Stewart finally let loose with some assertiveness, and the result was interesting.  “Why couldn’t she have shown a tenth this much energy during any other part of the film?” I muttered to myself.

Then came the defining moment of the monologue.  “Who will be my brother?” asks Snow White.  Only she says it a little too emphatically.  And the crowd around her is a little too quick and unified in their response.  And the comment itself was a little too on-the-nose.  Shakespeare already wrote the definitive speech of this type, and that sentence was simply too close to it.  So much so, in fact, that immediately the words popped into my mind:  “Saint Kristen’s Day speech.”

I couldn’t help it.  I laughed.

Don’t misunderstand me.  There are quite a few merits to be found in Snow White and the Huntsman.  The film is well-shot and well-animated, at times gorgeous.  The costumes are rich and lush.  Most of the actors give performances of good to excellent quality, especially Charlize Theron in an almost perfectly-judged scenery-chewing turn as the villain.  But in the end, it’s not enough.  What we have here is a film that never really seems to get a handle on its reason for existing.  It wants to break away from the classic versions of “Snow White” that we all remember, but never totally manages to do so.  Add in the mis-casting of Kristen Stewart as the titular princess, which is (I think) the real reason the film never manages to coalesce, and we get an assembly of some intriguing parts into a disappointing less-than-whole. (more…)

REVIEW: Men in Black 3

I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Men in Black 3.  That feeling only deepened in the first few minutes, as I watched an opening scene which raised more questions than it answered.  Worse yet, it seemed as though all of my problems from the previous movie would remain.  Tommy Lee Jones was still back.  Will Smith was still cracking bad jokes.  And though I didn’t know when I’d see him, I just knew Frank the Pug would make another guest appearance at some point.  I could feel the premonition of coming “comic relief” pain taunting me with maddening certainty.  But there was nothing for it.  I had bought my ticket, and I wasn’t about to walk out of the movie.  So I settled back to await the inevitable inferiority of a second sequel.

Imagine my surprise when, about twenty minutes into the movie, I found myself enjoying it.  From that point on, the movie only improved.  They just don’t make inevitability like they used to, I guess.  Serves me right for judging a book by its cover.

There will be massive spoilers ahead, so don’t read on if you’re not prepared to hear all.  But for those people who want to see and judge for themselves, I’ll leave you with this thought:  Men in Black 3 is the pleasant surprise of the summer movie season so far.  What’s more, though I’m sure mine will be the minority opinion, it’s actually my favorite of the franchise.  Where the first movie was a fun action romp that missed a few opportunities to be something deeper, this one takes advantage of its opportunities to humanize its characters, creating a few moments of genuine feeling amidst the very successful action and comedy portions.  And it’s definitely an improvement over the loathsome quagmire that was the second movie.  Though I doubt it will make enough money to justify a fourth entry, Men in Black 3 will at the very least send out the franchise on a high note. (more…)

Published in: on June 4, 2012 at 11:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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I have a belief that every film can be summed up in a single well-chosen adjective if you try hard enough.  Fortunately, when it comes to Men in Black II, you don’t have to try hard.  It’s more a matter of which word really sums it up.  “Uninspired,” perhaps?  “Feeble” and “amateurish” would also be good choices.  But when we get right down to it, the word you’re looking for is “insulting.”

It’s common knowledge that sequels are generally worse than the original movie.  Even allowing for a quality dropoff between installments, though, MiBII still fails to live up to expectations.  For many years, I clung to the hope that this film would kill off the franchise.  Amazingly, it did not.  But I promise you it wasn’t for lack of effort.  It’s almost as if Robert Gordon, Barry Fanaro, and the additional raft of uncredited writers who did polishing duty on this turd spent weeks taking careful note of everything that made the original film so popular and fun, just so they would have an exhaustive bible to consult when doing the exact opposite.

For example: (more…)

Published in: on May 27, 2012 at 11:59 pm  Comments (3)  
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REFLECTION: Men in Black

So why am I reviewing a 15-year-old kid-oriented action/sci-fi flick?  I could tell you that it was because I was low on my quota of hyphens for the month, and the previous sentence helped me get rid of four more of them.  But that would be a lie.  I use considerably more hyphens than the average person.  My quota gets met and exceeded month in and month out.

Obviously, the real reason is that I’m heading off to see Men in Black 3 today.  Since I hadn’t seen either of the first two films in years, I thought I would rewatch them to get myself back in the mood.  And since I was going to watch them anyway, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to get a couple blog posts out of the experience.

This isn’t going to be a full-fledged review, though, so much as it is a reflection on the original Men in Black.  When I watched it as a teenager, it was one of my favorite movies of all time.  Coming back to it fifteen years later is a great benchmark for measuring how much I’ve changed.  As it turns out, that’s quite a bit.  Time has altered my perceptions of the movie so that while I can still see what my teenaged self loved about Men in Black, and I can even still share the experience at a couple of points, I still long for something deeper and mourn what I see as some missed opportunities. (more…)

Published in: on May 27, 2012 at 4:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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REVIEW: Stories from the Quiet War

World-building is an area of writing you hear a lot about when you read speculative fiction.  Yet it also proves to be a seldom-addressed aspect of the stories many writers actually tell.  How many planets have we seen in science-fiction where everything was “just like Earth, but with” a single relatively unimportant difference?  How many fantasy novels seem to take place in a generic sword-and-sandal era?  Don’t think I don’t see you nodding grimly on the other side of cyberspace.  You know what I’m saying is true.

Usually writers seem only to be interested in a particular story that has caught their fancy, so they write a world around that story and then fill in a generic background for everything that doesn’t need to be rendered in close detail.  And when you see writing that deviates from this norm, it tends to the other extreme:  the world is all-consuming, and the characters and ideas are trite clichés meant to help us explore it.  Only among masters do you find people who are interested in world-building for its own sake, and who also have the desire to use those worlds as vehicles for powerful stories.

Well, my friends, you’re in for a treat today.  Paul McAuley is such a master.  And Stories from the Quiet War, which contains five short works ranging from a medium-short story to a novella, has everything you could ever want from near-future science fiction. (more…)

Published in: on May 25, 2012 at 8:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

REVIEW: Battleship

What?  No submarine?

That is far from my biggest problem with Battleship, Hasbro’s $200 million attempt to show the entire world that Michael Bay’s aesthetic is not difficult to imitate provided you have no shame and access to $200 million.  But it’s a problem nonetheless.  After all, if you’re going to spend so much money to adapt one of the most famous board games of all time into a film, you might as well throw in everything the board game has to offer.

Which, when you think about it, isn’t much.  “Battleship” was never meant to be made into a film.  The board game has no plot, it has no characters, and it has no discernable setting – the three most critical elements of any movie.  It consists solely of two players, each trying to sink their opponent’s naval fleet before their opponent can do the same to them.  And it wouldn’t make for very scintillating cinema to watch anonymous officers on the bridge of an unspecified ship pore over an ocean chart before gravely announcing, “D-2.”  (Though we get a scene much like that in this film.)

Still, every bad idea has to be tried at least once, and I suppose I have to give the producers credit for letting their imaginations run free.  If you had put a gun to my head and forced me to write a screen treatment for Battleship, I suppose I would have come up with a variation on Run Silent, Run Deep that went like this.  During WWII, two opposing naval forces of equal strength encounter inclement weather somewhere in the Arctic Circle.  The weather not only keeps them in the area, but makes their onboard radars useless.  They are forced to fire blindly into the darkness, hoping against hope that they will sink the enemy fleet first.  It’s not exactly the script for Citizen Kane, I admit.  But if you fill it out with a few characters and set up the circumstances just right (low ammunition, some prize the enemy forces both want to claim first), it would make a not-totally-awful adaptation.

I never would have thought of aliens, though. (more…)

Published in: on May 21, 2012 at 11:19 pm  Comments (1)  

REVIEW: Dark Shadows

I should preface this review by noting that I will not try to compare the film Dark Shadows to the television series of the same name.  I have seen only a handful of the show’s episodes, totaling perhaps 1% of all that were made, and I haven’t seen one in some 15 years.  So although I have vague memories of the characters and the basic mood of the show, I am not in the best position to compare it to the film.  Nor do I think such an enterprise would be worthwhile…given that the show constitutes some 600 hours of produced television, it would be impossible for the film to fairly distill the experience of the show into a two-hour running time.

I will say this:  I was not looking forward to reviewing this for you, and I attended a screening only out of obligation.  The previews I’d seen made Johnny Depp look like the foolish and foppish love child of Bela Lugosi and Max Schreck, and even worse, the whole endeavor seemed as though it would be played for broad comedy.  That’s not how I like my Gothics.  I like them played fairly straight, with castles and secret passages and family curses passed down through whispered lore.  And if they’re supernatural Gothics, again, I want that played straight.  Vampires shouldn’t be emo whiners, and ghosts should be properly spooky.  But the marketing team made it seem as though we were getting an outright farce.

Well, whoever that team is, they should be fired, because they had no idea how to market this movie.  Dark Shadows is a proper Gothic at heart.  There are plenty of laughs, but they’re more of the sly variety, and only rarely does Tim Burton actually subvert the mood by going too far.  If you’re a fan of opulent mansions and twisted love stories stretching back two centuries, then by all means, you should see Dark Shadows. (more…)