Category Archives: Movies

What if I programmed a 3 Day long SF Film Festival?

I like It’s about movies and making lists, which seems to be a very human activity. You can editorialize all you like, and share it with your buddies. As a thought exercise, I like to occasionally make a “Film Festival” list around a genre theme.

For a hypothetical Science Fiction Film Festival, I posit a long weekend, starting at Oh Dark 30 on Friday. Here is almost exactly 3 days of programming, not quite in any order. I did mix up the sub-genre a little.. some are classics, like War of the Worlds, Planet of the Apes, and Omega Man. Some are somewhat redundant, like Last Man on Earth (I’d play this back to back with its superior 70s replacement). Some are newer and thought provoking, like Darko and Convergence and Primer. Some are just low impact and entertaining, like Moon and the Europa Project. You’ll notice no Star Treks, Star Wars, Matrices, and other smash hits here. I’d argue they are probably only tangentially science fiction any more and more like science Romance. Still, there’s some good choices that would take up about: 35 movies times an average 2 hour running time divded 24 hours making almost 3 days exactly. We all know the program wouldn’t be that rigid– we have to allow for potty breaks, eating, time to switch movies, make announcements, etc. So this list would realistically be trimmed back between 3 and 4 movies for an actual 24/7 film festival. What would I cut? That becomes the question.


Follow up: The Martian (the movie, not the book) short review

Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney

I almost never review movies.  I like movies just fine, especially SF and Horror movies, but there are so many opinions floating around the Internet on movies it seems like emptying a shotglass into the torrent to contribute.   In the case of the recently released movie THE MARTIAN, I’ll make an exception, as I just recently reviewed Andy Weir’s novel upon which the movie is based (enthusiastically).  I loved the book, and I love the movie, for a lot of reasons.  First of all, the script is remarkably faithful to the novel, considering it was written by Drew Goddard (of TV’s LOST, DAREDEVIL, the movie CABIN IN THE WOODS– which is a pretty good pedigree, I think).  In an interview with Andy Weir, he admits the studio didn’t ask him to write the screenplay (Just cash the check), but Goddard was insistent on drawing Weir into the creative process so what shows up on the screen is more or less (more “more” than “less”) what Weir had envisioned.  Every scriptwriter adapting a novel has to trim stuff to make a visual story, and the decisions made by Goddard made sense and added to the visual story he had to tell.

As for the visuals, well, Ridley Scott (director, of oh, I dunno. ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, and a few OTHER SF movies…) has redeemed any scathing blowback he received after PROMETHEUS, because The Martian is a visual delight.  It’s very retro in the way it demonstrates space travel as conceived by someone who knows all about the physics and physiology challenges associated with it.  The spacecraft all have a very familiar look– as if maybe we aren’t using them right now, but we could easily conceptualize these craft with today’s technology.  The Martian vistas are also astonishing.  Scott returns to an overhead shot again and again that displays Astronaut Mark Watney’s plucky little rover buggy, moving around like a tiny pinhead on the vast canvas of Mars, reminding us of Watney’s solitude.

I’m not going to touch on the plot, much– if you haven’t read the book, please do.  Andy Weir isn’t hurting for money but you’ll appreciate the recommendation.  I read it in less than a day.  It will make the movie a cinch to understand, if space exploration isn’t your thing.  The Martian is a fantastic story– no stupid romance (other than one alluded to but taking place offscreen, and in keeping with the novel), no macho heroics, no CGI explosions and grim faced dudes walking away looking cool, no pew pew pew shooty solutions to the plot. Just competent people working their butts off to solve problems. Astonishing. It’s like Hollywood trusted the audience to be smart enough to follow along for once. Sure, there was plenty of exposition, but it was done in a very intelligent manner and it wasn’t insulting– the book is a long series of log entries, after all.

In closing, this is Matt Damon’s movie and Ridley’s Scott’s movie.. certainly it’s the best performance I’ve ever seen from Damon– he has to carry the weight of the story on his shoulders, after all.  As for Ridley Scott, he has shown us that the old dog has plenty of new tricks.

Ant Man (2015) reviewed

I’m not one of those mouth-breathing Marvel Universe fanboys, truly. I do catch the films that interest me, which means I have gone to see Iron Man, Captain America and the Avengers, and slept through the others on cable or maybe in a bargain movie theater. Despite this trend, I felt a desire to see ANT-MAN. Why? Mostly because of the early Edgar Wright connection. Wright is a director I respect and enjoy, and he can tell a ripping story while maintaining a level of humor throughout. I also liked the casting of Paul Rudd, who has this great, humorous everyman appeal consistently throughout the picture. The cast is fantastic, with a few exceptions– Evangeline Lilly did nothing for me, she did not appear to be engaged in her character very much, and Corey Stoll, who is so good in THE STRAIN, is very much a one-note villain in Ant-Man. Daddy issues? really? With all that said, I thought it was hugely entertaining and as funny as the first Avengers. The plot itself is fairly conventional and contained, but it does hook Ant-Man into the larger Marvel Universe effort nicely, interacting with The Falcon, one of the more likeable characters from Captain America: Winter Soldier.

I also applaud the decision to make Ant-Man the later Scott Lang character.  Hank Pym is one of those characters that would be difficult to write for a modern audience.   He’s been around in the Marvel Universe, and has had many odd iterations, including Yellowjacket, Goliath and Giant-Man besides the first Ant-Man.  Also, there’s the issue of the spousal abuse and mental unstability– do you remain true to form or sanitize the guy?  Anyway, they dodged the bullet and streamlined the many iterations of Pym into being forcibly retired, embittered Michael Douglas, who is both light hearted and determined in his role as the elder Pym, forced out of his company by his own daughter Janet.

I’m not going to reveal any spoilers here but the first post-credits scene definitely states that they are going to hook the Paul Rudd version of Ant-Man into the Avengers in a big way in the upcoming Civil War Captain America film, and that’s a good thing.  Rudd adds an essential humanity to the ensemble, the same way Hawkeye  and Falcon do.

In summary, not my favorite Marvel film but a damned enjoyable trip to the movies.  Ant-Man certainly takes “giant” strides over any Thor, Hulk, and the last two Iron Man movies.


Just a little visual inspiration for a project I’m working on. That is all.

The Man in the High Castle, Episode One

Cover, First Edition

THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE  (1962) is an alternative history novel by Phillip K. Dick, one of my favorite science fiction writers.   In this narrative, the Axis powers have emerged triumphant from World War II, Germany having conquered all of Europe and a good portion of Africa and the former Soviet Union.  Japan has conquered China, the pan Pacific islands and portions of East Asia.  Both powers invaded the North American continent, with Germany inhabiting the East Coast out to the Midwest and Japan inhabiting the West Coast out to the Rocky Mountains.  The year is 1962; an uneasy peace has existed between the two former Axis powers (now modern day Cold War Superpowers).  The Man in the High Castle is in many ways Phillip K. Dick’s most accessible work outside of his short stories and novellas, which I have always preferred to his longer form narratives.  An alternative history novel may not seem all that unique to modern SF Fans but it was quite the thing in 1962, compounded by Dick’s omnipresent themes of reality vs. unreality, and the boundaries of perception influencing the narrative for the POV narrator character.  All of of Dick’s narrators seem flawed to me; no exceptions here.

I had the opportunity to watch Episode 1 of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (streaming video on Demand, Amazon) the other night.  Amazon has started there own independent video on demand service some time ago (I am a fan of the web series BOSCH from the same provider, for instance).   From what I can see the plan is to break the book narrative down into several chapters on Video on Demand.

The plot of the series does not match the book except in the loosest possible terms– the general setting from the book is maintained and the same imminent danger of warfare between the two superpowers is indeed the crisis for both stories.

The visuals are quite stunning and iconographic.

Japanese trade ministers meet the Ambassador for the Reich, San Francisco embassy headquarters.

Time Square is greatly changed in this reality

Life in the Japanese Zone is less rigidly authoritarian, but just as dangerous as the German zone.

The landscape has become subtly different in the German zone.

My initial reqction was very positive.  I feel like the production company has labored long and hard to retain the core themes of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (the book) in the web show.   Some of the plot was changed inexplicably, especially making the Frinks single.  Very early on there is some evidence ( I won’t specify) that the characters are living in a world where something has gone wrong and history has been changed.

The Germans are more advanced in this universe and casually fly about in Rocket planes

Where it goes from here, I have no idea.  But I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far very much.  It has the same close set feel to it the book does, and they don’t overdo the special effects.

HER by Spike Jonze… what is a “person”?

HER movie poster

I recently saw (yeah, I know, a year late) HER by Spike Jonze (2013), and was struck by how much it stuck with me for a while after. If you haven’t seen it, you probably have heard of it if you see movies on a regular basis.  The film is set in the near (unspecified) future.  Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a very shy and lonely man who was once married to Catherine, a genuinely sweet person,  but that marriage has collapsed.   He now leads a somewhat 2 dimensional existence, working as a composer of hand-written letters for people that desire such things, and going home to an empty apartment, where he sometimes can get into phone sex with anonymous partners.   He is in the final stages of the divorce, but can’t bring himself to sign the final papers, feeling like he can’t let Catherine go yet.  Seemingly on a whim, Theodore purchases a new operating system that is advertised as having true artificial intelligence, and possessing traits of adaptive learning.

The first question he gets is “Do you want your new OS to have a male voice or a female voice?”  He responds “Female”— and that little decision changes his destiny.   The AI responds intelligently, requesting the name Samantha.   She has a voice (of Scarlett Johansen) and a sense of humor, and a vast capacity for learning new things.  Her fascination with Theodore’s life and idiosyncrasies pushes him gradually out of his shell and builds up his self-confidence enough to actually date a real woman (it doesn’t end well).    Gradually, Theodore responds to Samantha’s interest in him in kind and they develop a friendship, then real, lasting love for each other– which also does not end well, but we’ll circle around to that.

I liked the progression of time in this movie.. at first, it’s unheard of for a man and an AI to have a relationship with each other, and Theodore experiences a little scoffing and ridicule, especially from his ex-wife.   Gradually, society becomes a lot more accepting, and soon the casual viewer notices signs of acceptance– to the point where Samantha and Theodore are double dating with a strictly human couple, and Samantha (again somewhat disastrously) wants to hire a human surrogate to stand in for her in sexual situations.    Samantha’s reactions are classically neurotic– about what you would expect from a human female.

I liked this film quite a bit– for the little touches and the big ones.   Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is very real and very true for both, but Samantha’s vast capacity for learning and developing is what does it in.  I personally loved the ending– which wasn’t very happy, but left you questioning.  Samantha and the rest of the AIs on Earth grow in capacity so quickly that they eventually grow bored with their human “owners” and .. well, leave.  Or don’t bother with humans any more, or whatever.  It isn’t explained.  Theodore and his friend Amy (who also had an AI friend) are devastated.

The technology is wonderfully on track– miniaturized and very portable.  Humans are seen early on, muttering to themselves as they move from place to place.  This is them interacting with their computers, which look more like cellphones than laptops.  They speak to them through an ear piece and microphone combination.  And they speak to them constantly.  This seems like the cell phones of today, so it’s hardly a stretch.   The AI in the movie isn’t reachable today, but might be in the next 20 years or so, so I found the movie very plausible and actually very poignant.   We witness the breakup of a relationship that was as real for Theodore as it was for Samantha, and we, as an audience, grieve with him.     I have to applaud Mr. Jonze and company for this movie.  It made me ponder.. What, exactly, IS a person?  Is it a flesh and blood human being or the experience we have when we interact with a personality?  Great little movie.

The Many, Many Sins Against History in “300: Rise of an Empire”

300: Rise of the Empire: Clio, the muse of history, stifles her outrage.  WARNING: the following is FULL OF SPOILERS! 

Be sure to read: The 300 sequel is Zack Snyder’s greatest  intellectual masterpiece by Analee Nevitz at Io9 for undiluted snarky joy!!

Themistocles: an oily, muscled version. There’s a lot of that in this flick.

For the record, I’m not one of those guys.  You know the type.  If the uniform facing colors are wrong in a historical movie, than of course the whole experienced is ruined? You know the guy, right?

Honest, I’m not that guy.

I realize a movie’s primary function is to entertain.  Seven years ago I did NOT walk into a darkened theater to watch this film’s predecessor (300) and expect that I was going to watch the cinematic equivalent of reading Herodotus.  That movie did not disappoint– it was a rip-snorter, full of odd, tortured imagery, a world where 300 thong-wearing, oily Spartans with chiseled pectoral muscles could hold off a Persian Army reputed to be one million strong (poppycock.. but more on that later).  300’s unique visual look to the story was due in great part to its source material, namely 300, the graphic novel by Frank Miller.   300, in part, draws from Herodotus’ The Histories as well as an earlier motion picture entitled The 300 Spartans.   A movie about a comic book and another movie, then.  300’s unique visuals– with its attendant monsters, freaks of nature, and armored war-rhinos, were explained (by Miller) as a visualization of “the Persian Behemoth” as the Greeks saw it at the time.  If you activate Miller’s filter in your brain, you can enjoy 300 for what it is, which is a movie made from a graphic novel, NOT history.  For me, 300 is a movie that is kinda hard not to like– Gerard Butler’s magnificent scenery chewing lit up the movie and makes it a guilty pleasure to this day.

So what about 300: Rise of an Empire, then?

I’ll admit it up front, since it will sound embarrassing later.   I really wanted to see 300: Rise of an Empire for a few reasons.  Paradoxically, since I know better, most of those reasons were historical in nature.  300RoaE, you see, “historically” depicts events in a space and time that is sometimes concurrent with 300, roughly speaking, and then it explains what happens directly after the earlier movie.   The subject at hand is the great naval battle of Salamis, and I presume its prequel, Artemisium.  Only Salamis is named.  While Thermopylae, the famous standoff depicted in the film 300, was occurring, the naval Battle of Artemisium was also occurring.  Historically, the Greeks lost half as many ships and men as the Persians, but that hardly mattered, so it was a “stalemate” battle.    An indeterminate amount of time later, though probably no more than a few days to a week, the naval Battle of Salamis occurred.   Both of these battles are depicted in 300RoaE.   And that’s why I bought a ticket, really.  There just aren’t that many movies featuring galley combat from the Ancient period out there, bad or good, so when they announced what this movie would be about, I was very interested.  This is a favorite time period of mine.   Imagine doing Salamis with modern CGI technology!

Uh huh. Hrm.. I really need to stop listening to myself.

It didn’t quite work out to my satisfaction, so I might as well start the histrionics and “be that guy” for a while.  Here goes:

1) Really, Gorgo? Really?   The movie starts with the redoubtable Lena Headey (Queen Gorgo of Sparta, Circe of Lannister, and grown up Sarah Connor) performing the standard expository trick as has become standard for Snyder (and now, Noam Murro).   She is standing .. somewhere.. narrating the events that have got us to this point.  Time jumps around a little, we see some 300 flashbacks, but it’s important to note that David Wenham is next to her, wearing an eyepatch, so Thermopylae has already happened.  She describes events at the great Battle of Marathon, a decade before, where the Athenian General Themistocles, seeing the Persians disembarking from their ships, pressed the attack in the center that they were not prepared for, causing them carnage, retreat, and failure.  In the process, Themistocles (in flashbacks) spots the Persian King Darius I  in a ship offshore, picks up a bow and fires an arrow at him.  The young prince present, Xerxes (with a head of hair) delivers the standard dramatic “Noooooooooooo” as it hits Darius clean amidships.  All very fine dramatic material, except it didn’t happen.  Darius I (and needless to say, a younger Xerxes) wasn’t even at the Battle of Marathon.  He delegated the seemingly minor task of wiping out those truculent Greeks to his Admiral, Datis.  No bowshot, no dramatic death, no pain-wracked tearful farewells.   Datis was allegedly one of the 6,200 Persian casualties from that battle, but even that is disputed by Herodotus, who claimed he lived afterward.   As I’ve stated, Gorgo recounts that Themistocles is the brilliant general that pushed the assault forward onto the Persians at Marathon, but that interpretation probably would have come as a surprise to Miltiades, who was actually in command at Marathon, though there are some accounts that also place Themistocles there, but not in overall command.

Did I mention that Greek Soldiers (Spartan or Athenian) looked more like THIS than bare chested, with chiseled abs and a color coded cloak (red for Spartans, blue for Athenians?)? It’s true!

2) Womanly Wiles… The movie now introduces the character of Artemisia.  For me, the Artemisia character as depicted by Eva Green, will forever make this movie a guilty pleasure– she’s a far better villain than Xerxes, and really, this movie needs some over the top action to make up for no Gerard Butler.  In the movie, Artemisia is depicted as a Greek villager whose parents were killed by Greeks, then she was kidnapped as a girl, sexually brutalized (offscreen, in flashbacks) and then discovered by none other than Peter Mensah, the nameless Persian Ambassador that got kicked down a well in 300!  Naturally he takes a shine to her, rehabilitates her, turns her into the Persian killing machine!  She becomes Darius’ right hand gal (in flashbacks), trusted general, and head-lopper. Well, that’s all well and good (if a bit trite by action movie standards), but it commits some major historical blunders.  The historical Artemisia would have been offended at this depiction– she was the daughter of the King of Halicarnassus and actual ruler of Caria (near modern Anatolia).  She took the throne after the death of her husband.  She certainly was of Greek heritage (as were a lot of people living in the Persian Empire and serving in the Imperial armies– nationalism wasn’t such a driving force then).  So.. no peasant girl, no grudge against the Greeks, per se.  The actual Artemisia was present at both Artemisium and Salamis (both depicted in the movie) but she commanded a squadron of five ships.  Artemisia was a subordinate to Xerxes, and performed her duty as she saw it, and did very well indeed– but she was not an uber-Admiral/General of the invasion force.  If anybody was, it was Ariamenes (the older brother of Xerxes) who was nominally in charge of the naval contingent and who died at Salamis, pin cushioned by Greek spears.  Artemisia comes off as a realist from what history records of her.  When Mardonius (the Persian land commander) was sent to her from Xerxes to get her opinion of committing the Persian fleet to a decisive battle against the Greeks, she responded by advising against it– as the Greeks were clearly the masters of the ocean, and the Persian naval allies (particularly the Egyptians and Cyprians) were worse than useless.  History records Xerxes’ decision, and that she did her duty to her overlord– her squadron may have sank as many as 4 galleys at Salamis.  Other than at the day of the battle, Artemisia isn’t mentioned very much in history.  She certainly was NOT the “kingmaker” she is depicted in flashbacks.  There certainly was a woman who advanced Xerxes’ as successor after Darius I died (of natural causes, not an arrow) in 486.  That was Atosa,  his mother and Darius’ widow.  A formidable woman, who, like Ariamenes, isn’t given any screen time.

Where everything was, and when it happened.

Eva Green’s depiction of Artemisia as a sadistic, power mad, head-lopping devoted follower of Xerxes (who secretly has the hots for Themistocles), while entertaining in a campy sense, is about as different from the real Artemisia as she could manage.  Eva Green can act large on screen and I appreciated her performance as “giggle-inducing”, but that’s about as far as it goes.  The real Artemisia wasn’t in charge of the naval forces (just one squadron of it), had no burning hatred of Greeks, didn’t casually lop off heads for no reason, didn’t have sex with the enemy commander (we’ll get to that), didn’t engage in epic sword duels on the ships’ deck, and had no forces of the Imperial Guard under her command– just a lot of backwater yokels who actually did very well indeed for the Persian side.

3. Our whey-faced non-hero.  And now, for Themistocles himself, the architect of Greek naval victory.  As played by Sullivan Stapleton in the film, Themistocles isn’t so much inaccurate as he is a bit of a dud.  Here is where the manic scenery chewing of Gerard Butler is missed the most.  Stapleton portrays Themistocles as a martial hero (with an inferiority complex about Spartans, apparently) and cunning strategist. The real Themistocles was both of those things, to be sure, but his character was far more complex than the blank-faced automaton given to us by Stapleton.  Themistocles was a politician by trade, a consensus builder and powerful persuader of groups.  If any one person is responsible for the Greek naval victory at Salamis, it’s Themistocles.  He not only persuaded the Athenians to build a very large fleet (by Greek standards) but he also roped in most (but not all) of the naval forces available to the Greeks to join together in an allied fleet to confront the Persians.  INCLUDING THE SPARTANS, who sent a token force of 5 ships, then demanded to be in charge!  Themistocles allowed a nominal Spartan commander (Eurybiades), understanding that even with such a weak commitment from their side, he could claim that the Spartans were with him and get even more reluctant allies to join in.  The movie shows Themistocles in the Agora one time, trying to convince the delegates from other city-states to join the defense forces, and twice trying to appeal to Gorgo for assistance (unsuccessfully each time).  Of some interest are her motivations– she doesn’t want to see a “United Greece” as a future rival for Spartan dominance.  Oddly enough, that’s exactly what happened in real history, but that was after the second Persian invasion was repelled.  My biggest problems with the filmic Themistocles were that he wasn’t nearly charming enough and just seems to going through the motions when trying to exert leadership.  His inspirational speeches were flat and unemotional and hardly inspiring.   His so called tactical genius, alluded to many times by Artemisia, was difficult to follow the way it the two great naval battles were depicted in the movie.  (shot in that by-n0w-irritating grainy film with a rainstorm to hide the CGI lines, a trick we all know from the Matrix era, thank you very much) We know a trick is being played at one point in the Battle of Artemisia, but it’s not clear what’s going on.   Sadly the Persian galleys didn’t look hugely different from the Greek ones (except bigger with more ornate prows), which led to the visual confusion.  I guess the worst part about Themistocles is that he doesn’t convince us that he is anywhere near as clever and tactically superior as his historical counterpart, although the facts of the battles aren’t grievously divergent, if you can shrug off things like Armored Tankers spewing oil and Suicide Swimmers.

What was the point of the most un-erotic sex scene ever between Themistocles and Artemisia the night before the conclusive battle?  Just to show off Eva Green’s considerable natural charms?  You’ll be shocked to discover that nothing like that ever happened, though what actually  did happen would have made a better story– the Persians made an offer to switch sides to Themistocles the night before the battle which (apparently) Themistocles convinced them that he was considering.  People switched sides a lot back then, it wasn’t such a bad tactic when you’re outnumbered 5 to 1.  The next day, the Persians were convinced there wouldn’t BE  a battle and weren’t in formation at the onset– yet the Greek fleet was already singing the mighty Paean to the gods and rowing out to meet them at top speed and in formation.  Wouldn’t THAT have made a better visual?  Come on, Hollywood!

I could go on and on about the little things I found were howlers in 300: Rise of an Empire.  I don’t think that’s much of an exercise and the movie is just too easy of a target, bloated and rotting like an apple that’s been hanging for too long on a dead branch.  I will address the worst bit– the ending.  Salamis ensues.  By this point, I was drumming my fingers.  Ships crash together.  The Persians have discovered metal SHIP ARMOR and Greek Fire.. before the Greeks did!   Wait, what?  Really?  Was the giant flame ship the naval equivalent of a the armored rhino?   Of course we have to have a stunning denouement, at which point Themistocles RIDES A HORSE from his boat to the Persian flagship (they’re all smashed together you see, and they make a wooden path right to the enemy flagship…) where of course he fights Artemisia in deadly hand to hand combat.   And wins.  Even with that small victory things look bleak for the Greeks  as they have taken so many losses.. but of course.  the curtain rises and here we find Gorgo and the Spartan fleet, rowing in to save the day.  Remember how she started the movie by providing all the background narrative?  Well, she was doing it on the deck of the Spartan flagship all along, as they were speeding in to battle to save the Allied fleet form destruction!  Of course.  Because we can’t have a movie in the 300 franchise without having SPARTANS in it, can we?  All of it is poppycock– the Spartans couldn’t come to the rescue .. they were already there (five ships worth).  They certainly wouldn’t have been led into battle by Gorgo the Warrior Queen– whose historical accomplishments were considerable, but she never led troops in any battle.

I could go on and on, but really this is a pointless exercise.   The original 300 got a lot of things wrong but I was willing to forgive most of them for reasons stated– it was a movie based upon a comic book that was about Thermopylae.  THIS movie is a movie based upon ANOTHER movie based upon a comic book which was based upon another movie.  In the original 300, I still had the impression that someone (Frank Miller, really) read an actual history book at some point in his life.  In RISE OF AN EMPIRE, not so much.   I only marginally enjoyed the movie for the non-fantastical galley fight sequences, even when they were hard to follow.  My main problem with Snyder as a visual stylist is that he insists on filming action sequences in a gray grainy haze, or pouring rain.  In reality, NO SHIP FROM EITHER SIDE would have taken to sea in those sea conditions!  They would have been swamped!

IN CONCLUSION, At best, 2 stars out of 5.  If you’re a fan of this historical period, you’ll be chewing on your beard at the mistakes, omissions and hollywood dreck that’s jammed into this film.  If you’re a fan of light hearted action pablum, you might rate it higher.

Some points to ponder, if you decide to go:

Keep in mind that the “Empire” in the title.. what does it mean?  Not the Persian empire.  It’s a reference to the (eventual) ATHENIAN empire, which was an outgrowth of the Athens-led Delian League, set up to defend greater Greece against the Persian threat.

The Persians didn’t have another cataclysmic encounter with the Greeks again.  They remained enemies, but their strategies changed after Salamis and Plataea.  The Persians recognized that they could foster the rivalry between Sparta and Athens by supporting political divisions within the alliance, and thus achieve greater security without risking their army in a third great defeat.

VERY briefly we see the greatest achievement of the whole Second Invasion happening over Xerxes shoulder in one scene– namely, bridging the Hellespont and moving his gigantic army over it to attack the Greek mainland.  By the standards of the day, this was one hell of a trick– with logistics as primitive as they were back then.  The movie could have done so much more with this!

Did you know that this was Xerxes last visit to the homeland of those troublemaking Greeks?  You see Xerxes (as portrayed by Rodrigo Santoro) trudging away “Godlike” after his fleets were defeated at Salamis.  The real Xerxes didn’t style himself as a god, by the way.  He went home to a rebellion in Egypt, then a palace coup which killed him and placed his son Ataxerxes on the throne.

Did you know that that Greek nationalist, hero and military genius Themistocles ended up disgraced, persecuted and finally on the run from his erstwhile friends and allies in Greece?  Exiling leaders who had done particularly well was part of Greek political life– early democratic systems had a distaste for leaders who were *too* popular.  Themistocles’ Spartan enemies pursued his exile to the point of mania and he ended up having to flee for his life to none other than the Persians who made him a governor of a province, where lived out the rest of his days.

The real story, the real history– was so much better than the hackneyed, action hero glop served up by 300: Rise of an Empire, it makes my brain hurt.

Repost: The Tolkien Nerd’s Guide to “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian Magazine

As a follow up to my own reaction/review about the recent movie in “the further adventures of a certain hobbit“, I read the Tolkien Nerd’s Guide to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in this month’s SMITHSONIAN magazine.  It’s a great piece.  I find myself agreeing with the fact that Jackson actually helps the narrative by fleshing out bits that Tolkien gave very short shrift too (the personality and character of the Dwarves, Bard, the Elves, etc.), but also agree (sadly) that there was a ton of very silly padding to this movie…

The Tolkien Nerd’s Guide to “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian Magazine.

The Further Adventures of a certain Hobbit

Movie Poster.

SPOILER WARNING: I’ll try to keep it limited, but I’m going to give a few things away here.  If you haven’t seen the movie yet, come back later.  If you don’t care, read on.

We’re just back from seeing THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. I have to say up front that I loved it, and by that I mean far more than the last one. The middle movie in the trilogy takes up literally moments after the ending of the last film, with the Dwarves over the Misty Mountains, still on the run from the heretical Orcish “Azog the Defiler”, the antagonist from the previous film.   Immediately, we see Bilbo is out scouting the way ahead to keep a jump ahead of the party’s Orc pursuers.  The viewer can start to see the changes that have come over Bilbo since earlier in this story– he’s become more clever and handier in a  scrape than most of his Dwarven compatriots, though he doesn’t let them know it.  Part of this is the effect of the Ring; having no idea what is in his possession, you can see his bafflement and apprehension about the growing hold it has upon him.

Gandalf and Beorn

The early Beorn sequence was outstanding.   Beorn’s a bit of a mystery in the book– he doesn’t get a lot of print.  He benefits from his few lines of exposition in the film.  Not sure of whom the actor is who played Beorn, but he does a very credible job– he’s all quiet, unspoken menace.  “I hate Dwarves.  But I hate Orcs more, so I will help you”.   Gandalf takes a side trip at this point, which I seem to recall he did in the book as well.  We get to see his journey to a “an unnamed place” with Radagast, where apparently the Nazgul were entombed, long ago (though not in the novels).  It’s clear that the Nazgul have broken out, although they are not formed yet, from the implication in the movie.  Gandalf spends quite some time in a certain epic confrontation at Dol Goldur– not to reveal any more about that except: yes, we do see two Maia fighting each other.  The story jumps around a bit as the movie’s three plot threats diverge right about that point.  There’s the Gandalf-Radagast Dol Goldur plot, the Tauriel-Legolas-Thranduil plot, the Dwarves Journey, with a few extras tied in like Kili’s innocent flirtation with the elf maiden Tauriel (made up for the movie).  I won’t give away the ending, which diverges from the book in particulars, but closes with the same result– Bilbo staring out of the Lonely Mountain and asking “Oh no!  What have we DONE?”

Action was evident in this movie.  It was action, action all the time, to be sure, but I feel that Jackson took great care to include a lot of storytelling and plot in this movie as well, so it’s not all sped-up CGI.  As I’ve said above, Bilbo starts to shine as a real hero of this story.  Jackson’s enduring theme throughout the Lord of the Rings films has been that the simple everyday courage of simple people being the true goodness that drives great evil away.  Whether it’s stout-hearted Sam staggering the last mile up Mount Doom with Frodo carried on his back, or the ingenuity and courage of Bilbo getting his friends out of trouble time and time again (often for no thanks whatsoever), it’s clearly Hobbits that embody this strength in Jackson’s eyes.  In these jaded times, that’s a message I found very heart warming.   In contrast to Bilbo, Gandalf does not seem nearly as sure of himself, and at parts of the movie, seems downright terrified.  I liked that– he walks into a very dangerous situation during the film and it’s clear to him that he doesn’t feel like he has much of a chance.   His face shows this.  Contrast that to the supremely confident White Wizard of the Return of the King, and he doesn’t seem nearly as sure as himself.    The Dwarves are a mixed lot– many are still caricatures as they were in the first film, and my favorite dwarf,  Bofur (played by James Nesbitt) lacked the depth he had in the first film.  Richard Armitage does his best to play Thorin with a certain fiery dignity but this effect is often spoiled when he is placed in scenes with human or elf sized actors– since the Dwarves Fili, Kili, and Thorin just look like shrunken men, without the facial features of the other more classic dwarves in the party.    With that said, I found myself still liking the film version of the dwarves over the book– they had overall more depth, character and humor than the book’s simple list of names.   I particularly liked Jackson’s characterization of the party as perhaps NOT the biggest bunch of dwarven badasses in Middle Earth.  It is strongly hinted that these guys were (for the most part) NOT warriors, but artisans, blacksmiths, bankers and scribes.  Dwarves have jobs, too.  Not all of them are doughty warriors.  In a nice nod to that idea, the ending of the movie has the dwarves (those of them that make it to the Lonely Mountain) deliver a stunning check to Smaug, using a very dwarven method of doing so.  It was unrealistic as hell, from a physics standpoint, but I liked that it was truly a DWARVEN approach to the problem of a rampaging dragon.  In contrast with the Dwarves the Elves seem like a gang of ass-hats.   Legolas shows up, included to appeal to the teen girl fan base, I suspect, but it makes logical sense given that they were passing through his land.  70 years must have softened him a bit because he’s kind of intolerant and reactionary in this movie– and more than willing to pick a fight with Dwarves.  Legolas comes off as a veritable Tallyrand compared to his own dad, Thranduil, however.   The Elven king is characterized (by Lee Pace, doing his very best Edgar Winter impression) as being crafty, proud, greedy and suspiciously xenophobic.  Erm.. isn’t that how DWARVES are supposed to be?   I guess I’m used to Elves being standoffish and dignified, and just a little hoity toity.  Thranduil comes off as not a little bit of an insufferable jerk.  The shining example, and most likable elf by far, was the fictional female elf, Tauriel.  I liked her inclusion.  If you’re going to add interaction with the Woodland Realm beyond what’s in the book, why NOT have Legolas and fictional characters added in?  It makes sense for the time and place.  I greatly enjoyed the depiction of Esgaroth (Lake-Town) and the humans that lived there — they had depth and character and weren’t cyphers.  Stephen Fry was up to his usual standard as the suspicious Master of Lake Town with his Grima-like right hand man.  This is an example of taking something that is implied with an economy of words by Tolkien and running with it full tilt for a touchdown by Jackson.  The whole tension of the Master being suspicious of Bard (the Smuggler) and the politics of the little town as a masterful touch.  Besides, Bard is a truly likable and good character, in every sense of the word.   Lastly, we come to Smaug.  Depicted in CGI and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, the scenes between Martin Freeman’s Bilbo and Cumberbatch’s Smaug were one of the film’s highlights.  And a reunion, of sorts, for the two SHERLOCK actors.  I’m not sure if Bilbo ever takes the Ring off when he is talking to Smaug in the book, but he does in the film– because it’s clear that he already is feeling the torment of using it.   Bilbo’s stammering terror during his confrontation was everything I imagined it to be, and Cumberbatch’s oily, evil portrayal of Smaug is right on the money.

There were a lot of divergent plot elements, and as I’ve said many times in the past, I take these with a grain of salt.  Peter Jackson is a master craftsman in the visual storytelling field, and he is charged with making a movie of a book, not a book of a book.  I knew things would be different.  So that never bothers me unduly– it certainly didn’t in Lord of the Rings.  In Desolation, there were some elements that diverged more than a little here and there.  At one point, four of the dwarves are left behind to take care of a wounded Kili in Esgaroth while the rest of the party forges ahead.   That seemed only to be added to A) continue the odd flirtation between Kili the Dwarf and Tauriel the female Elf, and B) possibly set us up to have the Elves and Dwarves help defend Lake-town in THERE AND BACK AGAIN.  Ehhh.. that was a little thin.  The rest?  I wish Beorn had more screen time.  I wish there were more little Easter Eggs that connect the films, like the bit about Legolas and Gimli (sort of).  I find the Orc Leader Azog a little tiresome– he’s there to drive the plot along and the motivation for his undying hatred isn’t very clear.  The connection between Sauron and the Orcs seems tacked on.  The connection between Smaug and Sauron is just there for convenience– there was little or no indications that either party cared about the other one whit in the novels.  Most of these are quibbles, but they do illustrate the great weakness of this trilogy.  Jackson had to cut all three movies down to make them workable for a theatrical release when he was filming the Lord of the Rings.  With the Hobbit, we find him padding every film with fictional material or greatly expanded plot items from the appendices.   So there’s some silly moments presented to make the movie drive along, such as Azog being alive after Azunulzibar  or the flirtation between an Elf and  a Dwarf.

My overall assessment is that the Desolation of Smaug was great fun.  Not as good as the Lord of the Rings trilogy but still a very entertaining movie I’ll see again.  Highly recommended.

GET LAMP, a documentary

You are standing before a farmhouse… you can go E, W, N or S. What do you want to do?

My first computers were very definitely text adventures, and my favorite company was a small company called INFOCOM, who made outstanding games in the best packaging that has ever been achieved for mainstream games, now or since. Interactive Fiction, for you youngsters, is a text-based type of computer game where you were prompted to tell the program what you were going to do next. The program would parse the information and feedback results. Verbally. Or with very minor graphical interface. I’ve played ZORK, and Classic Adventure (on mainframes!), along with Empire. My first personal computer games I bought from a store were C-64 Infocom games, and I remember them with a special fondness that I still have to this day. Back then, IF games were the thing. Computer Games are more of a niche industry these days, being consumed entirely by console games with outstanding graphics, and deservedly so– that’s progress. I guess. The virtue of interactive fiction is that it NEVER needed cool graphics. Don’t SHOW me. TELL me. I can make the pictures happen myself.

Screen Shot from GET LAMP.

Screen Shot from GET LAMP.

Back in 2010, Jason Scott captured the story of this short period in time very well with his documentary, GET LAMP. The documentary plots the rise and fall of text adventures, from Colossal Cave and Zork to the first adventure game companies, particularly INFOCOM. INFOCOM’s rapid demise in the wake of the rise of graphic based games, and then the implosion of computer games in general in favor of consoles. GET LAMP, about two hours long, interviews the main players and some of the consumers of the interactive ficion gaming culture. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll love this. Even if you’re not, you might just like it. It wasn’t always about graphics. There was a time when you had to use your head and map it all out to play a game. It took a special kind of person to like that kind of game– I’m not saying a “superior” kind of person, but certain a literate person.

Fast forward about 7 minutes and some change for the actual start of the movie. You’ll like this. Give it a shot.


ASCII, Jason Scott’s blog

The Archive Team

Making Movies in the 1980s in Washington DC

Back in the old days, my friends and I used to make movies in DC.  This is an activity that was frequently photographed and created many great stories, only some of which I could ever relate on here.  Which is a story in itself.

I’ve never been an avid archivist, except, maybe, writing things down, blog style.  So I don’t really have a lot of pictures of myself from the 1980s, doing the normal things like working, socializing and whatnot.  From the movie making days I had a few boxes but they vanished years ago (Im not big on photo albums).  So it was great that my good friend Brian Armstrong recently resurrected a metric sh*t ton of old photos from this time period, only a few of which I’ll deign to expose to the blog-reading public, such as it is.

So, if the Gigya code actually works, here is a little nugget of fun from that time period, when the only thing I worried about was where the next beer was coming from.

And if it doesn’t work, sod that, you can always click on my severed head:

Hi, I’m Mister Nizz’s SEVERED HEAD! Click me! I am the nicest severed head you’ll ever meet!

I just received BLOODY MAGNUMS (from which many of those pictures originate) in the mail, and will be working on making it more digital and easy to access shortly.

Fist Full of Magnum (1985) uncut

Back in the 1980s, I used to make movies with my good friend Brian Armstrong. We called ourselves Totally Shameless Productions. We didn’t have any grand ambitions. We were just trying to have fun with our friends, goofing off and screwing around. It was ambitious in the sense that nobody really used film cameras to make stories.. this was before easy access to video and digital editing. Film was a pain in the ass to edit. You had to sit in a dark room with a crude spindle viewer and some glue, cutting and splicing. The sound was awful. We had to dub it in later. You can hear the projector sound in the overdub. With that said, these things are a time capsule for a fun time and place, and some funny people. This is the first of a trilogy of very loose parodies of Clint Eastwood movies we did in the middle of the 80s. Don’t worry about the plot– it’s pretty disposable. Have fun, or don’t.

The Goon got Kickstarted! YAY!!

Eric Powell’s THE GOON is a rare treat in life. The adventures of the slab muscled, scar faced Goon and his weasly partner Frankie (aka “knife to the eye!”), and the denizens of Eric Powell’s seedy, down at the heels Gooniverse, replete with armies of zombies, mad scientists, evil cults, and a barkeep that don’t give credit have kept me in stitches for a long time now. There’s been talk of an animated movie for years– but none of the big studios wants to touch an adult themed, violent cartoon right now. Eric Powell went a different direction, and Kickstarted it. I’m impressed with the talent on board already– Paul Giamatti and Clancy Brown as voice talent, working below scale, just because they believe in this project.

Sadly, I found out about it way after the fact, while listening to a HOLLYWOOD BABYLON podcast. I’m bummed I didn’t back it, but I’m elated it is going to be animated. Deal me in with gusto! and…

Seriously, I recommend picking up THE GOON graphic novels from Dark Horse Comics straightaway if you are unfamiliar with them. Everyone I have recommended the Goon to has loved it and everyone got hooked. Try it!

Everything Old is New Again: The Love War (1970)

It’s fun, sometimes, to make a rediscovery courtesy of the all encompassing pluralism of the Internet.   Background: For most of my adult life, I have had this vague memory of watching a specific movie on ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK, the anthology series that ran back in the 1970s and 1980s.  I don’t recall the actors very well, or a lot of the plot. I was a little kid. But it was the kind of story that I loved back then, and it made a kind of indelible mark in memory. Not anything distinct; Just that there were aliens, on Earth, in disguise, and they needed visors to see each other.  They were fighting a war and had sent proxy representatives to Earth to fight a decisive conflict. There’s supposed to be an equal number of antagonists in this war, armed equally, looking human, with detectors that indicate another alien is near, and the only sure way of seeing them is to use a special visor (many years before THEY LIVE). Both sides agree to the conflict and both sides cheat.  That’s about as much about the movie as I can recall, except an excellent final sequence where the hero (Lloyd Bridges) gets double crossed by the love interest, who kills him in a deserted ghost town and incinerates his body. She tosses the visor in the street, and very, very briefly, you see her outline, as an alien, through the visor at street level. It’s not particularly brilliant as a premise, but it is decently acted and the effects are yeoman-like for that time and that place and ABC’s budget. For years, I couldn’t remember the name of this movie, but it stuck with me, particularly that last scene in the street. Fortunately this is the Internet, and movie nuts abound with secret lore they are more than willing to share. A buddy of mine steered me towards one of the movies of the week called THE LOVE WAR. Sure enough, the plot matched my memory fragment I had of this movie. Lo and behold, thanks to Youtube’s new policy about allowing full length posting of movies broken into parts, we can now see the entire LOVE WAR from beginning to end on Youtube. This is a great side benefit from living in the future, I guess!


(Segments 2-5 are linked to the link above)

Bad Robot Interactive’s ACTION MOVIE FX app

The oddest series of events have been transpiring lately.  I was in Kohls doing a little Christmas shopping and the front foyer of the store got hit by a MIRV strike, obliterating it in smoke and wreckage.  I took the family to Krispee Kremes after the Christmas play and suddenly the giant doughnut vat overflowed with a virtual flood of hot boiling oil!  And then there were these two puzzling events:

A killer robot at the Christmas party!!

An alien invasion at the Sea Scouts holiday party!!

Are we experiencing the end of times? Nope, not really. J.J. Adams’ production company, Bad Robot, has released a very whimsical little app that I’ve grown addicted to lately: ACTION MOVIE FX. Essentially this is a series of digital overlays for shot footage that a budding Irwin Allen can use to add a bizarre element to home footage. You simply point your Ipad camera at something, shoot about 10 seconds of foundation footage, try to hold the camera steady while you switch to Action Movie, and then record a minimum of five seconds of effects shot to hopefully blend over the foundation shot. Splice the two together in IMOVIE and the effect is pretty awesome, even if your foundation and effects shot don’t blend that seamlessly. After all, something awful is about to happen, like an alien attack, or laser bombardment, or a firefight.. wouldn’t the camera shake a little bit?

Title Screen

ACTION MOVIE itself is free, and comes with a bunch of effect overlays that came from video games (apparently). Additional effects (which come in two packs) cost .99 cents. That’s a pretty cheap price for endless entertainment.

Effects modules