Seminal Works

Things change. Sometimes so subtly that you only notice when you look back after a period of time, but other times you can feel a seismic shift when something happens, a feeling that things will never be the same. Or, at least, you will never be the same.

Books and movies accomplish this when they change the way you see the world or when they express a thought that you were previously unaware of. Or sometimes they just show you a different way of telling a story or a different method by which you can express yourself.

While Starman Jones, Starship Troopers and Tunnel In The Sky were all formative reading experiences for me (and became the foundation for the way I tell my own stories) I didn’t feel the seismic shift until I read Dune by Frank Herbert.

Previously, I had felt that the world of science fiction could be divided cleanly into two camps: Heinlein vs. Asimov. Heinlein wrote highly personal stories that focused on one main character while Asimov wrote about whole civilizations. Heinlein worked his ideas into his stories while Asimov’s stories were about the ideas themselves and the characters were just puppets to stand around and point out how brilliant the ideas were.

Frank Herbert did both in Dune. He told the highly personal story of Paul Atreides and the societal meat grinder that was Arrakis and the larger machinations of the empire that contained them all. To this day it’s the only book I immediately turned to page one and began reading again after I’d finished it.

The second book that completely changed the game for me was Neuromancer by William Gibson. I don’t think I’ve ever been witnessed to such a gigantic sea change at any other time of my life. This was the coming of Cyberpunk, the creation of cyberspace, the birth pangs of the 1980s, this was the first jazz as language book since On The Road.

I finished reading that book and felt like everything I had ever known about science fiction was out of date. I had bought my first computer just three years before and was already teaching myself to program in assembly language but I had no idea what the future looked like until I read this book.

And then Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson came out and filled in all the blanks that Neuromancer left to the imagination.

The one book whose profundity I totally missed even after several readings was Stephenson’s highly underrated The Diamond Age. It wasn’t until I began thinking about supply and demand and automation and economics – I mean really thinking about it, trying to draw out the vector of future occurrences that drive all my storytelling now — that I understood the central question of the book: What do you wish for when you can have anything you want?

It’s been a long time since I’ve had that feeling that things are changing right beneath my feet. Probably the closest I’ve come in recent past was reading Jennifer Government by Max Barry. Or maybe Watchmen by Moore and Gibbons.

I guess the last big change in storytelling happened on television. I remember watching the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and thinking, “Every season is like one long novel and every novel is part of this bigger story. Television is never going to be same again.” Of course, it takes time for change to take hold but without Buffy you don’t have Walter White.

Oh, and by the way, I should explain that I love the David Lynch movie of Dune even though it has little to do with the book. That’s why I chose the image I did for the top of this post.

Traveling this week. Content will be spotty but please continue to buy books!

Soldier

From time to time it’s easy to forget how much of an impact (whether for good or ill) a director can have on a movie. Beyond the ability to completely wreck the project by bringing in his own writer at the last minute because the script that’s been worked on for three years doesn’t suit his vision, what happens when a director has no vision?

Ridley Scott famously suffered from a case of too much vision when making Blade Runner. It wasn’t until his editor put together a decent cut from all the miles of footage he shot that anyone had any idea that there was a movie in there.

But what happens when the director has no vision? A really good answer to that question is a movie called Soldier. I am and have always been a huge Kurt Russell fan, so when the previews for this movie first started coming out, I was one of the first to line of for tickets. Unfortunately, this turned out to be one of worst cases of flat footed, unimaginative storytelling ever.

It was directed without flair or imagination by Paul W. S. Anderson, famous for spitting out a stream of Resident Evil movies, but it didn’t have to be the slap in the face to the audience that it turned out to be.

The story, by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner) is actually quite intriguing. It centers around a human who has been trained since birth to be a soldier but who is then put out to pasture after a second generation of better trained soldiers comes into the field.

He is literally thrown away and when the garbage scow dumps its contents on some hellhole of a planet, he is welcomed by the peaceful, peace loving inhabitants to make it his home.

This already sounds like an Eastwood Man-With-No-Name movie, doesn’t it? A mysterious and deadly stranger comes into a remote town to root out evil and avenge injustice. But what’s his story? Where does he come from? Why is he doing the things he does?

In the Eastwood movies, these things are largely left to our imaginations, maybe filled in a bit with a few brief flashbacks. and its that mystery that draws us to the characters in the Spaghetti Westerns and films like High Plains Drifter.

Anderson (puzzlingly to my mind) decides instead to literally tell the soldier’s story from birth straight on through to his arrival in the desolate off-world hamlet he will inevitably be called upon to save.

This construction causes us to have to sit through a series of vignettes (from birth, to infancy, to school, to military conflicts, etc.) which takes far too long to set up what is ultimately a disappointing first set-piece: the competition between Russell’s version one soldier and Jason Scott Lee’s new improved version.

If the movie was about obsolescence, this scene would have deserved all the screen time it got, but the movie is about redemption and finding life in yourself when you thought you were dead. Then, seemingly half way through the movie, the trash gets taken out and the soldier begins his new life.

We already know what’s going to happen because Anderson was so obvious about setting it up so we kind of kick around watching as Russell makes inroads into civilization while we wait for the bad guys to show up.

I want to make two things very clear: Kurt Russell is awesome in this film and he has nothing to apologize for and the final shootout is engaging if not particularly well directed.

Once upon a time, Topher Grace wanted to learn film editing so he bought himself an Avid (or whatever, how should I know), ripped all of the footage from Blu-Ray discs of the three Star Wars prequels and somehow cut together one pretty good movie. That’s what editing can do even in the face of disappointing directing.

I’ve long been tempted to do the same thing to Soldier.

Imagine if the movie started off with the soldier being discovered in the trash and taken in by the colonists, the whole first act peppered by terrifying flashbacks (quick, jerky, bloody like a broken wrist) of his prior life. Then imagine that the first act ends like this:

Colonist

What’s out there?

Soldier

(Squinting into the darkness, his voice low like a dying whisper)

Me… Version 2.

Then he goes down to train and we cut his workout with the competition he lost to his replacement. This really kicks up the stakes because we know he’s already lost this fight once before. But there’s one difference: This time he has something to fight for instead of just following orders.

Colonist

What are we going to do?

Soldier

(finally turning to look at her)

Nothing. I’m going to do it.

Now that’s a movie! Right? Absolutely.

 

Remakes Redux

I talked previously about how much better the remake of Dredd was than the original Judge Dredd so I thought I’d swing back around and point out how that’s not normally the case. Let me just drop some samples on you:

The Fog, The Hitcher, Arthur, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Stepfather, Red Dawn, The Karate Kid, Robocop, Friday 13th…

The list goes on and on and in every case, the result is the same: If you saw the original first, then you probably found the remake to be either unnecessary, a gross distortion, or so bad that it went back in time and destroyed your childhood and now you’re a serial killer.

If you saw the remake first then your response was most likely: Meh?

There are a few exceptions, such as the excellent Dredd and Fright Night which I think is superior to the campy original, but for the most part, well, see the list above.

One of the best examples of how remaking an iconic 1980’s movie is playing to lose comes from the ill-advised (in a scientific capacity, at least) 2012 version of Total Recall.

In a stunning bit of expose’ journalism, I’ve managed to get my hands on the studio executive’s remake list. Apparently, this is used by all studio executives when remaking a classic film (which would explain a lot):

1. Was the original fun? If so, the remake should be dour and humorless.

2. Did the original have a larger than life personality for the starring role? If so, promise Colin Farrell a bottle of whiskey to mope around in front of the cameras for two hours.

3. Is there any science involved? If so, don’t even bother to ask a 5th grader if your idea to travel through the planet’s molten core makes any sense at all.

4. Use a pallet that’s mostly teal and gray.

The best remake ever, I think, is Dawn of the Dead. The first ten minutes of that movie is right up there with Saving Private Ryan and Pitch Black for pure intensity and it somehow manages to preserve the message of the original while tightening up Romero’s notoriously loose film-making style.

But in the end, we go to the movies to see something new, to have our minds opened or blown or, at the very least, to see someone try to do those things. The very best you can hope for with a remake is that they managed to say something new about something someone else already said.

Sexy Evil Genius

I like it when a title tells me everything I can expect to see in the movie.  For instance, if the title has the word “Transformers” in it, I know that the movie will have some kind of robots who grow emotionally from an intense emotional experience.

But sometimes the title, like an over achieving trailer, can give you so much information it spoils the movie.  For instance, that famous whodunit, “The Butler Did It”.

In the case of Sexy, Evil Genius, the title tells you what to expect but not anything about where you’re going to get it or how it’s going to be delivered. Instead, you are treated to 91 minutes of five people talking in a bar.

That came out wrong.  Because this is not a boring movie and you won’t really see anything in it coming your way until it’s too late.  Let me start over:

Five people walk into a bar and only one of them knows why they’re there. For the first part of the story, three of them recount fondly remembered events they shared with the person who has called them there.  Gradually, as they delve into the details of their stories, they begin to realize this person might just be dangerously insane.

Sexy Evil Genius has the look of a play that has been turned into a movie by adding some flashbacks (this isn’t the case, it was written for the screen), but don’t let that dissuade you from watching it.

The title doesn’t just describe the central character of the story.  It also describes the movie itself and everyone involved.

Highly recommended.

Ant-Man

As a nerd who likes nerdy things, one who grew up specifically reading Avengers comic books, I was surprised to find I had no desire to go see Avengers: Age of Ultron.  And this is really striking a nerve for me because I was forced to sit through all those cheesy special effects in the crappy super hero shows and movies of the 70s and 80s simply yearning for the day when they could take what was in my imagination and put it up there on the screen.

It took a major brand name director to get me back into the theater for a superhero romp. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002 was a revelation. It was exactly what I had been picturing in my head all those years ago when I had my nose buried in Marvel comics.  It was fun. It was funny. It was heroic and tragic. It was everything a Marvel Comic Book should be.

I wasn’t all that fond of Batman Begins but The Dark Knight literally changed the way I looked at the standard way of telling the hero’s journey.  That had more to do with Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, but still, that is a powerful movie.

Then came Iron Man with  Robert Downy Jr’s spot on take on the insouciance of Tony Stark and, later, Captain America which was nearly perfectly square, something required of Steve Rogers’ character.

The first Avengers movie was loud.  The second Captain America movie was tiresome. All the Iron Man sequels were repetitious.  The Man of Steel was just bad.  The glut was upon us and the strange, fringe things that we had loved for their strangeness and fringeness now became a part of the dull, machined, franchised pablum of corporate entertainment.

And then came Guardians of the Galaxy to remind us how much fun these stories could be.

Different, new, helmed by a comedic actor, it went to all the places franchise sequels don’t go.  I saw it four times and just talking about it makes me want to break out the disk and watch it again right now.

Ant-Man is this year’s Guardians. It’s the anti-Voltron.  It’s fun — hell, at times it’s actually nutty — and it’s different and it still manages to be exciting.  Oh, and Michael freakin’ Douglas is in it which adds a tremendous amount of gravity.

Paul Rudd is charming and, even though he exited the process before filming began, the script has Edgar Wright’s clever prints all over it.  The special effects work that shows Scott in his shrunken state, especially when he’s running with the ants, is amazing and Corey Stoll’s bad guy is suitably over the top.

Plus, the whole thing is driven by daddy issues.  Priceless.

Go see it.

It’s too bad Adam Sandler got his hands on the Pixels property. His group is so lazy their movies are the cinematic equivalent of a shart.

Book Vs. Movie

Most of the time the book is better than the movie for the simple reason that a novel can transmit way more information than a movie. Sometimes, as in the case of David Lynch’s Dune and Kubrick’s The Shining, it comes out in a weird sort of tie where the movie is not really a film version of the book but is its own thing, instead, that was inspired by the book.

Movies have a tendency to compress the material and jettison things like subplots and character development — and sometimes whole characters — to spend more time on car chases and those glossy closeups of cleavage so important to cinematic vision.

But sometimes — just every now and then — the movie is actually better than the book.  Blade Runner and The Big Sleep are two of the most famous examples.  In both cases, the movies addressed some critical failing of the book that actually improved the original story.

Philip K. Dick, though beloved and revered by many science fiction fans, was always more of an idea man than a writer. Way back in the 1970s he came up with all the big ideas that dominate the world we are actually living in today.

Whether it’s Androids (what happens to human identity when the difference between us and the machines we make is barely perceptible?) or Minority Report (just because we can predict the future, should we intercede in it?) or Second Variety (when machines get smart enough to improve themselves, what will they need us for?), he found it far easier to communicate the idea than to embed it in a quality story.

I know, I know: Torches and pitchforks.

But if you really go back and read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, you’ll see that Dick had a sloppy, seat of the pants way of going about story telling.  There’s even a bizarre interlude in Androids where Deckard is arrested for being a replicant and taken to a police station.  It turns out that it’s a fake police station staffed entirely by replicants, which makes no sense at all in the world of the book.

Also, the replicants in the story aren’t tortured by their limited life spans, they’re just psychopaths who hate humans. Rachel tries to kill Deckard, then seduces him and then tries to kill him again.  Let’s just say that the empathic difference between humans and replicants in the story (Androids is actually a long story, not a book) doesn’t require a Voight Kampff test.

The love story between Deckard and Rachel in the movie is what gives the movie its heart and the coming to terms with mortality that Roy Batty goes through gives it its soul.  Neither of these things is in the story Dick wrote.

Onward to The Big Sleep.

If my fairy godmother popped into my office just now and offered me the ability to write like anyone from history, it would come down to a tough choice between Hemingway and Raymond Chandler. I mean, I would choose Stephen King’s storytelling ability if given that choice, but if it came down to pure style, it would be Ernie or Ray.

The problem is neither one of those men understood women for shit and Chandler may have actively hated them.  His stories are so misogynistic that you have to keep telling yourself that he’s a product of his times and the alcohol was really getting to him by then and so on just to get through some of his books.

The fact that I saw the movie version of The Big Sleep before I read the book really drives home the difference.  Again, it’s the missing love story and the sociopathic woman that the movie fixes for the book.  The romance between Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge, hard edged as it is, in the movie is a damn sight better than their empty, angry relationship in the book.

Dredd

TL;DR Summary: One of the best science fiction movies in recent memory.  Up there with Fury Road and Interstellar.

I was not a fan of the comic book, in the sense that I didn’t even know it existed until the 1995 Sylvester Stallone movie, a film so awkward and embarrassing for everyone involved (including the audience) that it left a sour association with the whole franchise in my mind. So I was confused when I heard they were remaking it with Karl Urban and Lena Headey back in 2012.

Why am I talking about this in 2015, three years after it was released to a disappointing $13M domestic gross?  Because it’s one of those movies that was punished for being a great remake of a terrible film.  It’s also one of those movies, like Scott Pilgrim and Big Trouble In Little China, that people either get 100 percent or don’t get at all.  And since I am in the former group, I have a tendency to break this one out every now and then watch it again.

Why is it so much better than the original? Choices.

Where Stallone chose to go over the top (funny, I just remembered he starred in a movie that was actually called “Over The Top”) with his portrayal of Judge Dredd, Urban wisely understands that even though he is the driver of all the action in the film, he’s not the protagonist.  He’s a force of nature.  So his choice to play Dredd as a less mechanized version of RoboCop is right on the money.

He also never takes off the helmet which is important because Dredd NEVER removes the helmet.  Nerd rage over.

Likewise, Lena Headey realizes that even though she is the immovable object to Dredd’s irresistible force, she’s not the bad guy.  Peach Trees is. Poverty is. The megablocks are.  She and Dredd are just a pair of protons being forced together in the super furnace of a very bad situation.  There’s no chance of victory for anybody.  The only question is whether anyone will escape with their dignity in tact.

That’s where the indispensable and nearly unpronounceable Olivia Thirlby (seriously, try saying that name three times fast) comes into play.  She’s the hopeful penitent who is on the journey at the heart of this picaresque.

And this is another decision (probably made by director Pete Travis) that helps the movie: being a mutant with psychic powers, Thirlby’s Judge Anderson cannot wear a helmet.  This makes her the face of the protagonist forces just as Headey’s horribly scarred countenance is the face of the antagonist forces.  These two women, going against one another as opposing forces orbiting in Dredd’s orbit are what drive the story to viewers’ hearts.

One final thing: the movie is shot with an over saturated color palette that implies an almost constant heat haze and the scenes depicting what it’s like to take the Slo-Mo drug are beyond beautiful and certainly more beautiful than you expect in an action movie.

Highly recommended.

Jupiter Ascending

In theory, I love the Wachowski brand of film making.  When I’m watching their movies, I can actually visualize the two of them in a room together, hands framing imaginary shots, amping each other up over this or that set piece.  Their style is so visual that you almost want to watch their movies with the sound turned off.

But that’s also true of Michael Bay movies.  They’re essentially a series of loud, brash set pieces strung together by laughable exposition and truly clumsy dialogue housed in a plot so full of holes it almost ceases to exist.

Just being able to put together a truly amazing visual experience doesn’t make you a filmmaker.  It makes you a cinematographer.  A filmmaker is a storyteller who uses film as their medium.

Bound and The Matrix are two of the best stories ever told on film.  So how did the siblings who wrote those scripts get to the Matrix sequels, Speed Racer and, now, Jupiter Ascending?

The beauty of this movie is undeniable.  The colors, the design, the special effects, the over the top action sequences are all superior to almost any other science fiction film in recent history.  Mila Kunis, it goes without saying, is a treasure.  Channing Tatum is… muscular.

The problem is that it’s all in service of a story we’ve heard told a thousand times in exactly these words.  And when the story is not equal to its window dressing , it starts to look a little bit like putting on a full blown Italian opera just so your ten-year-old niece can sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star at center stage.

It would be interesting to see what they could do if they let someone else write the story.  It would have to be better than this noisy, chaotic retread however beautiful the eye candy.