Monthly Archives: August 2014

What was the big deal about ‘Divergent’?

Kate Winslet does more acting to get out of a speeding ticket than she does in all of "Divergent."

Kate Winslet does more acting to get out of a speeding ticket than she does in all of “Divergent.”

Rushed.

That was the word that kept floating through my head as I watched Divergent. I felt like everything happened too quickly in an effort to get a lot in, and it still seemed like there was something lacking. It wasn’t just that. I still am not sure what the deal is with Maggie Q’s character. It’s the first time I’ve ever walked away from a Kate Winslet performance unimpressed. I’m not sure why the minds behind the movie chose to give Miles Teller a paycheck and then asked him to do nothing to earn it. And so on.

It wasn’t that Divergent was a horrible movie. It’s no Bangkok Dangerous, Ghost Rider or any host of awful movies that don’t star Nicholas Cage. What it feels like is a missed opportunity. The set-up is good, the idea that this future city faces the dangerous wildness around it by strict adherence to a caste system that runs and protects the city. However, the intellectual caste wants to be in charge, doing its best to sling mud at the self-sacrificing caste that provides the politicians and public servants while simultaneously preparing an army of mindless soldiers that will do their will. The needs of the many cast aside by the greed of the few, a timely theme. Besides the premise, Jai Courtney is a helluva lot of fun as the uber-willing fascist jackhole Eric. And all credit to Shailene Woodley, who did a lot with a little. The resulting movie was both not worthy of her performance and only worth watching because of said performance.

Divergent is the set up for a trilogy, so it’s weaknesses could eventually be overlooked if movies II and III can build upon it.

But as a stand-alone, it doesn’t hack it. Unfortunate.

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‘Walter Mitty’ not worth the time

We had to wait for a "Zoolander" sequel so you could make this, Mr. Stiller?

We had to wait for a “Zoolander” sequel so you could make this, Mr. Stiller?

Sigh.

I think The Secret Life of Walter Mitty wants to be Forrest Gump. It wants to capitalize on my generation’s acceptance of the fact that we are no longer young, fearless and out to conquer an ever-changing world that we kind of wish would slow down a bit.

The problem is Mitty doesn’t want to admit it’s Forrest. It wants to be cooler and more removed and play Arcade Fire songs in the background of beautiful, exotic vistas. It wants to be the Forrest Gump for the Pulp Fiction generation. And the problem is, those two things don’t work together. Gump is merely the re-packaging of all things boomer to bring a tear to that generation’s eyes. Pulp Fiction was the movie that jumped up and stomped on that sentimentality, re-appropriating the best of the past to make it new and vital again. And being unable to bridge that impossible divide is what hurts Mitty the most.

The good? The relationship between Walter (Ben Stiller) and Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) is incredibly well done. It never feels forced, rushed or convenient to the plot. It develops naturally, two people starting to learn about each other and feeling better about the other the more they hear. And it doesn’t come together with a bang, some big, significant kiss at some supremely romantic time or a wild roll in the hay that signifies the deal has been sealed. No, Mitty is happy, content, feeling as good about himself as he ever has, and the woman he loves appears to care about him, too. So he holds her hand. And she smiles. I’m not a romantic dude by any means, but this may be one of the most genuine, loving moments I’ve ever seen in a film.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save Mitty from its poor pacing or sentimentality. But it does make it worth a viewing if you’re looking for something mildly humorous and unchallenging.

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‘Old Man’s War’ satisfying science fiction

It’s hard to know where to begin with this look at John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. Do I start by noting that it’s screaming for a big-screen adaptation, this novel with a cinematic feel woven into it’s DNA? Do I talk about all of the other influences that popped into my head, from The Matrix to Halo to Starship Troopers to Gulliver’s Travels? Do I write about the Buddhist feel of it all, ascension to the heavens in the body of a higher being, a chance for re-birth, a clean slate upon which to build a new universe?

I think it’s safe to say I got into Old Man’s War. I felt like it worked on a few levels. Yes, if you want a quick, cinematic read, Old Man’s War can be that book. The scene where our hero, John Perry, launches from a spaceship toward the nearest planet with nothing but his weapon and the high-tech, skin-tight body suit that will protect him as he enters the atmosphere is a heart-pounding sequence. Earlier, the Colonial Defense Force discovers the individual defenses of the Consu will absorb the first shot from the CDF’s MP-35 rifles. As they are about to be overrun by the Consu, Perry realizes the key is firing two shots in succession, one to break the defenses, the second to kill, turning the tide of the battle. It’s a thrill ride and a half.

But what really suckered me in was the consciousness transfer, which enables a 75-year-old retiree who has been Earth-bound for life to evolve into a human hybrid that runs faster, jumps higher, heals quickly and is … green, skipping across the universe to do battle among the stars. A lot goes on with Perry and his pals as they adapt to the changes, and there’s this undercurrent of, “What does this mean to our humanity?” Yes, these people who were traipsing slowly to the grave now feel wonderful, are full of energy and are capable of doing things even their younger selves were never able to accomplish. But all of this new power is focused into turning them into efficient, cold-hearted killing machines that will travel the universe to eradicate any non-human life occupying the space the CDF wants to colonize. It’s a perverse trade-off: Be young again, and use that youth to exterminate the other, the new, the unknown.

The final part of the deal is that, after the 2-year mandatory commitment, up to 10 years if the CDF requires it (which they always do, if you’re lucky enough to live that long), you are returned to a new copy of your human body and allowed to become one of the pioneers you have spent your military career defending. This is where the Buddhist idea of karma comes in. After living 75 good years on Earth, you ascend – literally – to a new plane as a super being. Then you spend 10 years as a super being doing your worst to the rest of the universe. After those 10 years, you are returned to your previous human life, forced to live it all over again, but knowing this time, this is it, no more.

There’s a lot more of this identity confusion in the novel, but it’s not something that overwhelms the action. A good comparison is Starship Troopers, not that they cover the same ground, but that the novel is greater than just its alien-killing plot. But I think Scalzi’s touch is more deft than Robert Heinlein’s, much to the benefit of Old Man’s War, as well as Scalzi’s readers.

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What if an alien told you God’s existence could be scientifically proven?

Not a bad premise for a novel, right?

Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God starts here, with an insect-like alien named Hollus landing outside the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, walking in through the front door and asking to see a paleontologist. The first paleontologist to answer the call is Thomas Jericho. There starts a relationship built on the bones of animals dead millions of years that ends four hundred years in the future on a space craft near the remains of Betelgeuse after it has gone supernova.

Where does God fit in to this story? When Hollus meets Jericho, she explains that her people, the Forhilnor, humans and another race, the Wreeds, are the only three forms of intelligent life currently in the universe (that they know of), and that all three have something very important in common. Each of their planets has has had five extinction level events, all that the same time in their individual histories. Meanwhile, all three races are at similar points in their development. Jericho is stunned. He asks Hollus if they have an idea as to why this would be possible. Hollus’s answer: God.

Jericho can hardly believe what he’s hearing. And thus begins the real thrust of Calculating God, the give and take between Jericho, an athiest dying of cancer who is bitter and resistant to the idea of a God that would allow that to happen, and Hollus, a serious scientist with more than a little humanity of her own.

What makes the give and take in Calculating God so fascinating is the science. Sawyer is willing to admit the holes in evolutionary theory, of which there are a few. For example, the idea that everything evolves slowly over time to come to where we are today isn’t necessarily entirely accurate. In many cases, there seem to be evolutionary jumps, possibly mutations, that advance the process significantly. Is that the hand of God, guiding development at key points in the evolution? Or is it chance, the chaos inherent in nature?

There are other examples. Hollus notes that water is the most unique liquid in the universe and, without it, there would be no life. All life comes from water, and for water to exist, specific conditions must be present that are also necessary for the development of life.

Or what about Jupiter? Part of the reason life has had the opportunity to develop on Earth is that the gravitational pull of Jupiter sucks in most of the space debris that would do our planet harm. Doesn’t that indicate the presence of an intelligent designer protecting its creation?

As an agnostic, I found Calculating God compelling. Much of Hollus’s pro-God argument is based on the delicate, statistically near-impossible things found in nature that, if something were altered by just a percentage point or a degree, would mean that life as we know it would not be possible. It’s the threading of biological, chemical and physical needles that really gives support to the idea that, to make these things happen, there needs to be a steady hand on the wheel. And that hand may be God’s.

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On second thought: ‘Man of Steel’

Henry Cavill and co. set the bar high with "Man of Steel."

Henry Cavill and co. set the bar high with “Man of Steel.”

What I thought of Man of Steel after my initial viewing: I was impressed, and that means something, because I cannot stand Superman. I never cared for the ’80’s movies, he was a total weenie in the 1970s cartoon I watched as a kid, I’ve avoided the comic books altogether and the few seasons of Smallville I watched were all over the place. Henry Cavill was a worthy son of Krypton, and I thought Michael Shannon was menacing, if a bit stiff, as Zod. I’ve never understood the fascination with Russell Crowe, but he was serviceable as Jor-El. Really enjoyed Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as the Kents.

What I think of Man of Steel after my latest viewing: My opinion has changed little, but I think what really sets Man of Steel apart for me is that, finally, we get to see the true destructive capacity of Superman. The 1980s flicks don’t have the technology to pull it off, the 1970s cartoon avoided any true violence and Smallville, again, was all over the place. In Man of Steel, Kal-El’s battle with Zod is essentially a fist fight, yet they tear apart an entire city. Smaller moments – when he’s first trying to fly and crashes into a mountaintop on the rough landing – show that, even unintentionally, Superman is a powerful force that can’t be contained, possibly even by Superman himself. We’ve seen some of that power in The Avengers/Marvel flicks, but the common thread is there really are no consequences to Iron Man’s, Captain America’s, Thor’s, etc. destructive actions. And while I have my concerns about Batman V. Superman, the idea that Superman’s power cannot be trusted and that Earth’s less-powerful superheroes may have to step up to face the threat of Kal-El is a rich vein to mine. If handled correctly, this is really DC’s opportunity to set itself apart from the Marvel steamroller.

Final thought: Even if Batman V. Superman is a tire fire – we’re throwing Batfleck with Aquaman into the mix, so my hopes are not high – I am interested to see where Zach Snyder and company go from here. Done right, the Superman crew could do what I would have perceived as the impossible less than a year ago: Upstage Marvel.

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On second thought: ‘Pacific Rim’

This bad boy makes deep-sea fishing an adventure.

This bad boy makes deep-sea fishing an adventure.

What I thought of Pacific Rim after my initial viewing: I thought it sucked up one side and down the other. The human performances were lacking at best. The fight scenes were slow, clunky and uninteresting. Not a fan.

What I think of Pacific Rim after my second viewing: I’ve softened a bit on the Jaeger-Kaiju fights. I think I was heavily biased due to my distaste for the Transformers franchise, a quartet of flicks that specialize in fight scenes that are mostly just metal clashing at high speed. The hand-to-hand nature of Jaeger-Kaiju combat came across better on second viewing, and the sheer enormity of the robots and creatures made the scale of the fisticuffs that much more impressive.

However, I’m still largely unimpressed by the human performances. Charlie Day works as comedic relief (although I have to admit I kept hoping he’d break out his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia rat-basher and take it to the Kaiju), as does his fellow scientist Gottlieb, played by Burn Gorman. Ron Perlman is big, bold and brash as Kaiju leftover parts salesman Hannibal Chau, but his screen time is limited. Idris Elba, one of my favorite actors, is under-used but solid given with what little the script offers. The Jaeger pilots are largely cardboard cutouts, and our pilot hero, Raleigh, as played by Charlie Hunman (Sons of Anarchy) is a waste of space. Day, Gorman, Perlman and Elba all elevate their weak roles and lackluster dialogue with their solid performances. Hunman is unable to do the same, lacking subtlety in a very by-the-numbers performance.

Final thought: Not a great movie, but it’s a pretty damn fine collection of big bodies battling.

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‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ great, but …

The Avengers, they're not. But they get the job done.

The Avengers, they’re not. But they get the job done.

There’s no doubt, Guardians of the Galaxy is a heap of fun, probably the most fun I’ve had with a Marvel movie since The Avengers. Plenty of humor, non-stop action, an unlikely group of heroes and the only Marvel flick to take place almost entirely off Earth give it a personality all its own (including being daring enough to have a totally crappy after-the-movie’s-over add-on … seriously, that was awful).

But Guardians of the Galaxy is also a symptom of a larger problem within the Marvel-verse: The big, city-destroying battle. I say “the” because the same battle seems to pop up at the end of every one of these flicks: Bullets and lasers flying, hordes of faceless minions gunning for our heroes, some sort of large aircraft/spacecraft, buildings falling, streets broken to shards of concrete, etc. The only thing that seems to change is the heroes doing the fighting. It’s starting to wear a little thin, in part because the big battles aren’t all that interesting.

Case in point, our titular Guardians. The big battle at the end is meh, lots of ships flying around, an enormous spacecraft closing in on a near defenseless city, and so on. The fun battles come when our fearless five escape prison with an ingenious and risky plan, as well as a confrontation with a pair of feuding factions when the Guardians go to see the Collector (a complete waste of Benicio del Toro’s creepiness, perhaps the only unforgivable part of Guardians of the Galaxy).

Even in the other movies, the better battles are the smaller ones. When Thor and his gang face The Destroyer in the Thor, when Thor battles Captain America and then takes on the Hulk in The Avengers, when Captain America’s elevator dust-up in The Winter Soldier, the smaller-scale fights are more intimate and interesting. Yet they seem to get buried in the body and building count of the large-scale, city-destroying climactic battles.

Is this a problem moving forward? On the one hand, like I said, more of the same gets old. On the other hand, most people are going to Marvel flicks to for that big, popcorn movie experience. Thoughts?

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Jenny Lewis, Indianapolis, 7/31/2014

Jenny Lewis at Old National in Indy.

Jenny Lewis at Old National in Indy.

Way back in 1995 I saw Cypress Hill as part of the original Lollapalooza tour. About midway through the set, B-Real started to kick into the second verse of some song … only to begin repeating the first verse. A few lines in, he realized his error, and stopped the song. “Sometimes when you smoke a lot of weed, you forget shit.” Cypress Hill started the song over, did it right this time and played one of the most energetic sets of the day.

I thought of that when Jenny Lewis and her band stopped Late Bloomer, a track from her newest disc, The Voyager, on Thursday night in Indy. It was their first time playing the song live, and there was some confusion at the end of the second verse. The band, Jenny and the crowd had a brief discussion about what was to come next, and when the correction was agreed upon, Jenny and the band started again and finished to great applause.

That’s what the live show is about: Figuring out how those perfect, clean, heavily tinkered with songs from the album translate in the less-than-perfect real world. Some artists throw fits, argue or yell, creating tension in the group and between the group and the audience. When artists handle it with aplomb, such as B-Real and Jenny did, it sets a relaxed, enjoyable tone.

As a whole, the show was terrific. I’ve always through Jenny has a pretty voice, a flawless voice that plays nicely off the lyrics about flawed individual. What I didn’t realize is how strong her voice is, and live that surprised me more than anything that happened on stage. She and the band played a majority of the new album – Late Bloomer, Aloha & The Three Johns, She’s Not Me, Slippery Slopes, Just One of the Guys, Love You Forever, etc. – tossing in a few from Rabbit Fur Coat (including my favorite from that album, Rise Up With Fists) and Acid Tongue, and even a Rilo Kiley track (the powerful A Better Son/Daughter).

If you didn’t walk in a fan, you sure walked out one.

Other notes …

* The Apache Relay opened and weren’t bad. But I’m confused as to why they needed their third guitarist-slash-second keyboardist. He didn’t seem to add anything to the mix other than another body on an already crowded stage. They also didn’t seem to go off script much. If you’re going to have that many instruments up on stage, someone should jam or go off at some point. Decent, but a bit tepid.

* I got the distinct displeasure of hearing someone absolutely butcher the sound for Perry Farrell’s vocals during Jane’s Addiction’s set a while back at Old National Centre. Last night, Jenny’s voice kept getting buried in the mix. I’m not sure how you hid the voices of such two powerful singers, but I sure as hell wish that would stop happening. Beginning to think it’s not worth it to go to Old National to hear a band, because you aren’t likely to hear the singer.

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