Category: science fiction

Consumption: 2018

A moment from Leigh Whannell's UPGRADE

Leigh Whannell’s UPGRADE

I keep this list every year, for fun and for reference. The list only reflects films seen for the first time.

I don’t do a numbered ranking, but my #1-most-fun-I-had-at-the-movies award goes to Leigh Whannell’s UPGRADE. Visually inventive and spectacularly violent, this rough-and-ready cyberpunk B-movie felt like a return to the days of ROBOCOP, or peak John Carpenter. Bravo!

Kudos, too, to the makers of SPIDERMAN: INTO THE SPIDERVERSE. It’s got heart, it’s got style (more than one, actually) and it’s so smart, fast, funny and original it makes all the other superhero movies look kinda stupid by comparison.

Have you ever been watching a movie when a moment comes along that suddenly shifts your entire sense of what it is you’re watching? I LOVE that. It’s rare to get even one of those in a film, and it happened to me twice while watching Ali Abbasi’s BORDER. This one’s about a Swedish customs officer who can literally smell fear. That’s all I knew going in, and all you need to know too. Don’t read the reviews.

I’ll buy that for a dollar! Boots Riley’s SORRY TO BOTHER YOU takes place in the same universe as ROBOCOP and Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL. That’s just my theory. But it’s true.

Other 2018 theatrical standouts for me included ANNIHILATION, A QUIET PLACE, THE FAVOURITE (seen in 2019 so it’s not on this list) and (sniffle) WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

On the TV series front, favorites at our house included The Crown, The Good Place, Better Things, Travelers, and Killing Eve.

The rise of Netflix streaming is very much in evidence in this year’s list. Standouts include Tamara Jenkins’ note-perfect PRIVATE LIFE (Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn as a middle-aged couple racing against their biological clocks), and writer/director Macon Blair’s 2017 release I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE. By turns funny and violent, the latter stars Melanie Lynskey as Ruth, a woman in way over her head as she tries to recover her grandmother’s silverware from some burglars. Ruth’s simple, heartfelt plea is one for our times: “For people to stop being assholes.” Amen, honey.

Linked titles take you to my review, or more info on the film.

MOVIES ON THE BIG SCREEN
Coco
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The Post
Annihilation
Black Panther
Darkest Hour
A Wrinkle In Time
Isle Of Dogs
A Quiet Place
Finding Your Feet
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Upgrade
Incredibles 2
American Animals
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Bohemian Rhapsody
Spiderman: Into The Spiderverse
Roma

MOVIES ON THE SMALL SCREEN
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping*
Double Indemnity
Dr. Strange
Hunt For The Wilderpeople
The BFG
My Happy Family
Beauty And The Beast (2017)
All That Heaven Allows
Mute
The Secret Life Of Pets
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Table 19
For The Love of Spock
Mad
Don’t Breathe
The Florida Project
The Informant!
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Battle Of The Sexes
Dredd
Blockers
The Endless
Take Me
E Il Cibo Va
Henry Fool
The Land Of Steady Habits
Game Night
Private Life
The Trip To Italy
Book Club
Sorry To Bother You

TELEVISION
The Crown
Rick and Morty
Travelers
Modern Family
The Good Place
Supergirl
Better Things
Mom
The Orville
Big Little Lies
Abstract: The Art of Design
The Great British Baking Show
Killing Eve
The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes
F*ck That’s Delicious
Black Mirror: U.S.S. Callister

BOOKS and OTHER READING
Spill Zone – Scott Westerfeld
The Best American Short Stories 2009 – ed. Alice Sebold
Orfeo – Richard Powers
Creatures of Habit: Stories – Jill McCorkle

*Surprise, Motherfucker!

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6 tweets about THE SHAPE OF WATER

The-Shape-Of-water-Still-e1513355024399

  1. You guyssss… I know it’s been a pretty weak movie year but SHAPE OF WATER is not a masterpiece. Don’t go soft on me you saps.
    #ShapeOfWater #YabtM
  2. Also, you DO realize it’s SPLASH, right? It’s. SPLASH.
  3. I mean, I enjoyed it. It’s not terrible. It’s heart is in the right place, I guess. I’m def. 100% against sadistic govt guys inexplicably torturing fish-men
  4. “Inexplicable” is overstating it. It was the space race. Something to do with Laika the space dog. Anyway, Michael Shannon had his reasons.
  5. I liked Sally Hawkins & Richard Jenkins. I liked their characters & relationship. I liked the sets. Fish-man was handsome.
    And it was funny when he SPOILER ALERT
    ate the cat
  6. OH, and what’s all that “waiting for the rain so the canal is full” business? Just drive to the damn beach.

I’m @giantspecks on Twitter. Occasionally Yelling About Movies #YabtM with my friends. Come say hi. Or yell back!

John’s 2017 Productivity Report

 

Splat

This cartoon by Jules Feiffer first came to my attention via Stewart Stern, a wise and lovely man who knew a thing or two about writing AND writer’s block.

2017 Goal #1: Finish my feature screenplay spec BARTENDER OF THE YEAR and submit it to the Nicholl Fellowship in April.

Goal achieved? NO

Not only did I blow past the Nicholl Fellowship and every other contest deadline this past year, I am nicely on-track to miss a bunch of 2018 deadlines too. I’m currently 100+ pages into a terrible, no good, very bad first draft. Writers sometimes call the first draft the “vomit draft,” the goal being getting it done, not making it good. But rather than a full-throated purge, progress on BARTENDER OF THE YEAR has advanced in a series of minuscule puke-belches.

BARTENDER is a comedy-drama about a popular local mixologist who runs for office in his small town. It’s also my challenge to myself to write a movie outside my comfort zone: one with no science fiction elements or high-concept gimmicks to propel the story. And it’s propulsion, sure enough, that has been lacking. In my darkest moments of plotting this thing I’m convinced I know nothing about writing, human nature, normal human speech, or how the everyday affairs of human beings are conducted. I feel as if I’m bluffing my way through everything.

And then other days… it’s better. A lot better. Experience has taught me the only way out is through. Push, work, WRITE until the work becomes the thing that occupies your mind instead of the fear.

 

Goal #2: Search for material

Goal achieved? YES

Itching to get a project into prep, this year I decided to put on my producer hat and start looking for screenplays. I didn’t find anything I wanted to option, but I made the effort and read a pile of scripts. (I’m still itchy. If you’re interested in sending me something, please read this to learn more.)

 

Goal #3: AFX training

Goal achieved? NO

This year I bought myself a nifty (and pricey) new MacBook with the intention of updating my knowledge of Adobe After Effects. The ability to create pro-level motion graphics and visual effects “in-house” would hugely expand the range of projects I can execute DIY-style. And, it’s never a bad thing to have more marketable skills. But I had an ambitious list of goals for 2017 and something had to give, so this one resides on the back-burner. I needed a new computer anyway, honey. Really.

 

Goal #4. Take a beginning improv class

Goal achieved? YES

Every Monday for 10 weeks this past year I stood up with a group of strangers, playing silly improv games with them and making up scenes on the spot. I said and did the first stupid-ass thing that came into my mind. Something different, to maybe blow some cobwebs out of the brain. Not as embarrassing as anticipated. Signing up for the intermediate class in January.

 

Goal #5. Other writing

Goal achieved? YES

OK, admittedly “other writing” is a pretty nebulous goal, so it’s easy to call this one a win. I did work on things besides BARTENDER OF THE YEAR in 2017… and even finished some of them.  For instance, an 8-page short called FROG, which I’m pretty happy with. It’s a two-hander about a disabled intern who befriends the super-intelligent frog she meets one night in a university computer lab. It was written expressly for the Jameson First Shot contest and if it had won, the script would have been produced with actor Dominic West providing the voice of the frog. Alas, that didn’t happen, but FROG did quarter-final in the ScreenCraft Short Screenplay contest in September.

Screen Shot 2017-12-30 at 1.38.29 PM

context is everything

One of the best writing experiences I had this past year happened at the day job, imagine that: Armstrong Creates, the agency I’ve worked at for mumble-mumble years now. I’m a generalist there, which means I might be retouching photos one day and cooking up an ad campaign the next. When a client (a manufacturer of corks for the wine industry) decided they wanted a concepts for a promotional video, I whipped up a script for a comedy sketch that takes place entirely inside a wine bottle. The wine and the cork are personified (think the Fruit of the Loom guys), best buddies who’ve grown very close over the years as the wine ages. They even sing a duet together. Like so many concepts, this pitch never made it out of the conference room. Too bad: I think it would have turned out well. Would have been an absolute blast to shoot, too. Given that, what exactly made this a good writing experience? Well, I got paid, for one thing. But more to the point: starting from zero I cranked out a completed script – one I was really happy with – in the matter of a couple of hours. It was exhilarating, and a welcome reminder that I don’t really need inspiration. I just need a deadline. So sure, my concept got rejected, but I went home happy that day. And the experience helped me shake off the torpor I’d been fighting much of the year.

Back at home and re-energized, I finally wrote up a first draft of ANAESTHESIA, another short film idea that I’d been kicking around for too many years. I’m also compiling notes for a new feature script, the one I’ll write once BARTENDER is in the bag. I don’t know the title yet. But it’s a sci-fi comedy about an alien invasion. Yeah, back to the comfort zone. I gotta be me, I guess.

 

6 tweets about COLOSSAL

COLOSSAL poster

  1. Given COLOSSAL’s fun premise, the film that unfolds is not quite the romp you might expect.‬
  2. COLOSSAL puts Kaiju monsters & indie-film slackers into a genre blender. Like many smoothies the result is a bit lumpy & faintly sour
  3. The lumps: Characters poorly defined. Plot threads meander. Some end abruptly and add little. Even the monster origin story is half-baked.
  4. The sour: characters aren’t typical indiefilm losers. Not clever/charismatic enough. The range is more like “pathetic” to “pathological”
  5. Premise pulls you through the rough patches, even as COLOSSAL turns darker. One scene evokes mass carnage without showing a drop of blood.
  6. And as stakes rise, COLOSSAL rallies. The film deploys its cleverest notion near the end, delivering a satisfying resolution.

I’m @giantspecks on Twitter. Occasionally Yelling About Movies #YabtM with my friends. Come say hi. Or yell back!

6 tweets about LIFE (the movie, not the existential dilemma)

Ryan Reynolds in LIFE

  1. LIFE is not a bad movie, but it’s a B-movie. ‪#LIFEmovie‬ ‪#rental‬
  2. So yeah, if you liked the trailer that’s what the movie is. No more, no less.
  3. There IS a long, lovely single-take intro that’s maybe the best zero-g scene ever in a space movie
  4. There’s also a major action scene toward the end that just doesn’t work very well, IMO
  5. But there’s tension/suspense, gross-outs & scares. Things zip along in a 10-little-Indians way that can’t help but remind you of ALIEN.
  6. The ending (SPOILER!) reminded me of the ’70s when big studio pictures more often than not went “tails” at the end instead of “heads”

I’m @giantspecks on Twitter. Occasionally Yelling About Movies #YabtM with my friends. Come say hi. Or yell back!

Beyond Recognition

Karl Urban and Zachary Quinto in STAR TREK BEYOND

Karl Urban and Zachary Quinto in STAR TREK BEYOND

Star Trek, we need to talk. We’ve had a lot of good times. But we’re both in such different places now. I’ve grown. You’ve shrunk.

I never saw INTO DARKNESS. After STAR TREK (2009) I decided to save myself the aggravation. But I was one of the hopeful fans who’d heard STAR TREK BEYOND would be the course-correction the series needed. I got burned again.

Initial reports that this one “got it right” were probably based on a few quiet scenes between McCoy (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). The casting has always been the best thing about these reboot movies, and indeed, here they kinda get the dynamic: Spock and McCoy bicker but underneath we can tell they respect each other. Fine. The bar is pretty low if we’re pleased with 10 minutes of chit-chat amid two hours of frenetic nonsense.

I won’t waste anyone’s time with a plot synopsis, but BEYOND kicks off with Kirk whining into his Captain’s log that he’s basically bored (what) with the routine (WHAT) of his 5-year mission. Exploring strange new worlds and boldly going has apparently become a big drag. I wanted to slap Chris Pine. Imagine original series Shatner/Kirk expressing this. It would never have happened. Here, the reboot (or “Kelvin timeline,” if you must) gets fundamental traits of both Kirk and the franchise wrong. This scene was Star Trek putting itself on the psychiatrist couch, trying to diagnose its own malaise. It’s not you, Jim: it’s the scripts.

But J.J. Abrams (director on the first two reboot pics, producer on BEYOND) has never respected the source material. He’s never treated Star Trek like anything more than a gig. He said he tried to watch the original series but “couldn’t get into it.” So he ripped it to shreds and picked out the bits that looked shiny to him. The end result is some kind of assemblage that only vaguely resembles Trek. In this metaphor I think Abrams is either some kind of primitive folk artist or maybe a crow.

But if you like movies made by crows, there’s plenty of shiny bits here to keep you busy. Kirk rides a motorcycle! The Enterprise gets smashed (again), and then the crew blows up the bad guys with an old Beastie Boys tape! Neat! And director Justin Lin never, ever, ever stops moving the camera.

In a rare quiet moment near the end of the film, Spock pulls out a picture of the original cast (from WRATH OF KHAN, I believe) and silently gazes upon it. More soul-searching, maybe: “where did we go wrong?”

Star Trek, I came back to you. I thought you’d changed. I thought maybe it could be like it was before, when we were both younger. But I got hurt again. So this is goodbye.

At least until May, when Discovery debuts.


I’m @giantspecks on Twitter. Occasionally Yelling About Movies #YabtM with my friends. Come say hi. Or yell back!

Time is an inky circle

arrival-movie-4-e1471529984165

This post contains spoilers for ARRIVAL.

ARRIVAL is one of those rare birds, a sci-fi movie for grownups. It’s aesthetically and conceptually elegant and at the same time very moving, and if you haven’t already, you should see it before you learn too much. Not that there is a huge and sudden reveal: there is no SIXTH SENSE moment. At least, there wasn’t for me: it was more a gradual, growing awareness of the story’s main premise and all its implications.

The protagonist of ARRIVAL is linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), recruited to communicate with alien visitors who have appeared in our skies. As the story begins, language is seen by all the characters in the film as a means to an end. Slowly and simultaneously, you and the characters on screen come to realize language itself the point.

Central to the film is the notion that language shapes perception. As Louise learns to parse the aliens’ looping pictographs she also acquires their ability to perceive time in a non-linear way. Exploring this concept, ARRIVAL does that amazing thing science fiction can sometimes do: it re-situates you, offering a unique vantage point from which to consider the conscribed parameters of your human experience. After seeing it, your own inability to perceive events before they happen may feel to you a sorry limitation, like a kind of blindness.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer employs non-linear story structure to represent Louise’s expanding perception. As directed by Denis Villeneuve, it’s a fairly daring tactic that tosses the audience without warning or cues into key scenes in Louise’s future. A sequence in which Louise and a high-ranking Chinese general collaborate to avert global catastrophe is breathtaking, cross-cutting between Louise’s present and future while defying notions of cause and effect.

But the film is not just a think piece: in ARRIVAL, the intellectual and the emotional are unified, inseparable. For Louise’s newly expanded perceptions also allow her to foresee a great personal tragedy. Ultimately she embraces the choices that will lead to that tragedy, fully aware of the terrible cost. I found myself turning her decision over and over in my mind for days afterward. That says everything about the strength of the film.


I’m John Harden. I also write and direct. I’m on Twitter as @giantspecks, sometimes Yelling About Movies with my friends. Come say hi. Or yell back! #YabtM