Posts Tagged ‘film’

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I finally saw the conclusion of the “Atlas Shrugged” movie trilogy

January 17, 2015

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NOTICE: Spoilers will appear in this review! If you ever read the book by Ayn Rand, you know already how the plot progresses. If not, you may want to avoid reading this.

(ABOVE: The “gold” “Steelbook” of the Part III Blu-ray, available directly from the movie website.)

First, I have to admit that just getting this made at all is a tribute to the vision and persistence of John Aglialoro, CEO of exercise equipment manufacturer Cybex International. The story of how the films were made is very interesting reading. I’ve read bits and pieces in a variety of places, but I don’t know of one place where you can find the whole story.

The 1000+ page novel is not only too unwieldy for one film, but really, even for three, but the book breaks into three parts nicely, and that is how the films were written. Unfortunately, the limited funding available meant that each subsequent film had half the budget of the previous installment – $ 20 million, $ 10, and 5 million for the finale.

Aglialoro and company decided on something that I thought was a very poor idea: each film was made with a completely new cast. Now, there were no guarantees even Part II would be made, so I suppose securing commitments from the first cast for a project that would take five years was impossible. Still, one of the flaws of the film series is that each subsequent cast and director seemed less able than the one before.

Part I was pretty watchable. With Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart, and Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden, the main cast members were, if not A-list, certainly B list folks, all good at their craft. I didn’t really expect Schilling to be as good as she was, but she sold me on being Dagny. (Of course, she is a big star of Orange Is The New Blackshe got an Emmy Award for it last year so getting a commitment from her for all three films may have been particularly difficult.) The rest of the cast pretty much lived up to my expectations as well, with particular standouts in Rebecca Wisocky as the Lillian Rearden you love to hate, and Graham Beckel as an appropriately-blustery Ellis Wyatt.

There were problems with updating the story to the present day. Rand gave no year for the story, except that it was assumed to be in the future; some folks who have studied it and her far more than I  believe it was set in about the mid-1970s. It could have been an excellent period piece, set a few years or even a decade after the 1957 publication of the book. In that time period the railroads were the major lifeline moving goods from one end of the US to another. Today, while they certainly are still a major means of shipping, trucks and aircraft have become much more important.

Placing it in the present day, or in the near future, meant a little hand-waving for making the railroads so vital to the welfare of the country. That was accomplished by making one of the effects of the stifling socialist federal government be to raise oil prices so high as to ground planes, trucks and most personal vehicles. In Rand’s world, pretty much every country outside of the US is socialist or communist, their economies are failing, and we are shipping aid to many of them – even though our own people need things just as much, or more.

Analyzing the book’s themes is beyond the scope of this little piece. What I mostly want to talk about is how I thought the final installment was successful in achieving Aglialoro’s (and Rand’s) aims, and places where it seemed to be lacking.

On the plus side, screenwriter/director James Manera (who wrote the screenplay with Aglialoro and Herman Kaslow) did a pretty fair job of taking hundreds of pages of dialogue, plot and description and distilling it down to its essence. I think a movie of 99 minutes is too short, but whether that length was determined by money, time, or intended pacing, I have no idea. The essential themes are there. Galt’s broadcast speech (which takes about three hours to read out loud) was cut to a few minutes, but still achieves most of the intention of the original, I think. The cast – most of whom certainly are of the category of “where did I see that guy before” delivered the lines with conviction. Rand’s prose doesn’t translate to the contemporary vernacular very well, so it sounds a little stilted; but some of it reads that way in the novel, as well. Rand’s Producers are not like most film characters – they think before the speak, they can make well-reasoned arguments, and they are pretty adept at leaving emotion out of their discussions. That’s rare in TV and film nowadays, where action and emotion are the keys to success in the big blockbusters that are rolled out every summer.

Trouble is, that kind of dialogue isn’t enough to grab the audience. I knew it was coming, but I’ve read the book, a couple of times. A viewer without that experience could think the characters to be cold and dry. They are passionate people, but about their work, and the things they create – that’s harder to bring out, I think, in the time available in the film.

Pacing was odd. The movie is a series of short scenes, with some connective narration. There’s a lot of plot, and not enough time to show it to you. The narration helps to move the plot along but the depth is missing. When the Taggart Bridge collapses, we learn about it after the fact, and it is more of an intellectual problem for the cast than something that essentially cuts the entire country in two. Short-scene pacing can work, but to make the end of the film exciting, it would need to be picked up there, and instead, the final scenes feel longer and not very dramatic.

I happen to think Rand’s ending wasn’t optimal, but through the book she describes the continuing degrading of services of all kinds – food, electricity, fuel, and makes a point in the final third of the book that the skyscrapers of New York City are only lit on the lower few floors. There is too little electricity to light the upper floors, let alone run elevators. The skyline at night should gradually be getting darker over the course of the three films, and we don’t see that. In fact, the way the final loss of power to New York (and apparently, the entire eastern seaboard) is by showing a scene from the air where blocks of lights go out one at a time. It takes a few seconds instead of minutes, and was obviously much less expensive, but it doesn’t make the audience feel the darkness that is overcoming the entire country – a darkness people feel powerless to stop.

The torture scene at the end, and Galt’s subsequent rescue, was hard to watch. It wasn’t as well done as on any one of dozens of TV shows, and gave a very B-movie mad scientist vibe. In 1957 such a torture device might have been new, but making a big deal about Project F as a secret crash program and then showing it as something better done in 1970s TV was laughable. In the book, at least the rescue has a feeling of urgency and drama. This film had none of that. Of course Dangy & Co. are going to save Gault!

I think I put my finger on the biggest flaw in this film and in the other two as well – and it’s not Rand’s fault, and not really so much the fault of the writers or directors, either. Unfortunately, much of what she warns us about is already here. The story is no longer a cautionary tale about what might happen – in some ways, what has already happened is worse than what is described in the book. If over half the voters in the US are willing to vote for bread and circuses already, we’ve lost. In 1957 I don’t think that was the case. The amount of money flowing back to certain segments of American society today is almost beyond imagining. Instead of the audience thinking, “We can’t let that happen here,” at best they are thinking, “It’s happening here just like that now. How can we possibly change it?”

The use of companies named after their founders – Taggart, Rearden, Wyatt, etc. – was deliberate. Like the original US car makers and many other manufacturers, these are companies built and driven by the vision of a single man. I think Rand was watching those kinds of companies begin to disappear around her in the 1950s, and without a single founder at the head to fight for a company, the kind of mergers and acquisitions in the book (and in real life) go on at a faster rate. Nationalizing those companies is the last step before their destruction.

Rand believed strongly in the power of individuals, and the free use of their minds to create. She saw the Communist takeover of her Russian homeland firsthand, and as the Soviet Union dragged itself out of the ashes of World War II and became a world power I am sure she feared the worst for all other countries. I don’t know what would happen if all the creative people in technical and artistic fields “went away” today. The globalism we see now is both a deterrent and a curse. Of course, if our scientists went on strike, those in China or Singapore or eastern Europe would still be creating. But could the US stand it? Right now we are seeing one of Rand’s predictions coming true – Wyatt’s shale oil has been so successful in the central US and Canada as to actually drop the price of oil to less than half of what it was two years ago – despite the efforts of the Federal government. We produce enough food to feed ourselves and others as well. Our country is considered still to be enough of a beacon of freedom to attract immigrants, legal and otherwise, in great numbers. But we are engaged in a constant battle with the Nanny State and the reach of the Federal Government. Rand said the only way to break that stranglehold was for the people who were running the motor of the world to stop. Of course, we never find out if Rand’s USA rises free from the ashes of its socialist government. That is the part of the book we must help to write.

Short addendum: One thing that could have helped this film immensely would have been a better score. A composer was hired – Elia Cmiral, who also scored Part I, but the mix put the score so far down, and the score itself was so uninteresting, that it didn’t help bring the audience through the emotional points at all. For more films that we realize, the score is so important as to be essential for us to feel with the characters. Unfortunately this score didn’t do that at all.

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Film review: “Interstellar”

November 19, 2014

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

This quote applies, of course, to any number of science fiction films over the last fifty years. But I’ve seen so many reactions on the interweebs to this movie that seemed to be so wrong headed that I wonder if maybe there are several different versions of the movie out there, and I happened to see the one that actually used an extrapolation of science.

Physicist Kip Thorne and producer Lynda Obst started out, much like Kubrick and Clarke, to make a real science fiction movie that was based on fact, or at least logical extrapolations of what we know right now. After a bit, they attracted Steve Spielberg, who in turn suggested Jonathan Nolan to work with them on a screenplay. Ultimately Spielberg had to leave the project, and eventually Nolan got the script to his director brother Christopher Nolan. After some legal wrangling between Paramount and Warner Brothers, the film finally got started. Thorne had many discussions with the Nolans, the effects team, and cast members as the film progressed. For many members of the audience, it probably would not have been necessary to go this far – audiences today will suspend their disbelief for a lot of nonsensical pseudo-science. But the fact they did makes it that much richer for me, and hopefully for a lot of other folks as well. Thorne even wrote a book elaborating on the process, called The Science of Interstellar. I recommend it; not only does it give a good overview of the science used as a basis for the movie, but it also demonstrates how much hard work goes on behind the scenes in a film, sometimes for decades before the film comes out.

Let me say at the outset that I enjoyed the film a great deal. It’s long, at over 2 hours and 45 minutes, and early on it seems a little slow. However, I think that’s just the way I perceive it after all the cgi-laden action/adventure films that have come out over the past decade. This movie doesn’t start with a bang and then just keeps running along. It takes the time to build the relationships in Coop’s (Matthew McConaughey) family for us. However, it seems to take a much shorter time for Coop to be sold on the idea of what probably will be a one-way trip through the wormhole. But then, Michael Caine can be very persuasive, of course!

If you want a recap of the plot, you can always go here. Rather than that, I’d like to reflect on the main theme of the movie, which is, to me, “we can save ourselves with a little bit of time travel, just not the time travel you think.”

Nobody physically goes back in time. (In fact, Thorne is one of scientists best known for explaining why we won’t be able to do that.) However, that doesn’t mean that information can’t be sent back, in one way or another. All you need is a civilization sufficiently advanced to give a father a way to send some information to his daughter – if the father is in the right place, and if the daughter is the right daughter.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! I’ve read that some folks who have seen the movie took the bit of speculation about the nature of love as being a tangible, physical force that transcends time and space – presented by Anne Hathaway’s character – and ran with it. Sorry, y’all; you weren’t paying attention later on. It is made abundantly clear that the lines in the dust in Murph’s room were created by artificially-created gravity waves. No “Power of Love” here. I can understand some of the confusion, though: gravity is just as difficult to perceive, and no more easily controlled, at least by us. But not by the post-humans. (That’s what I call ’em. For a long time we are sort of led to believe they are some kind of super-beings just doing us a favor so we don’t die off. Coop makes the mental leap that they are our descendants, greatly evolved.) We never see them, and we only really see one effect of their presence. The “time lattice” Coop uses to communicate with Murph is apparently constructed by the post-humans only for that purpose, so he can give her the information she needs for a breakthrough that allows humanity to finally leave Earth, and apparently just in time.

In a way, this is the “transparent aluminum” storyline: In Star Trek IV, Scotty needs “transparent aluminum” to construct a tank for the whales. He gives the formula to a 20th century chemist/engineer so that he can create what Scotty needs. When asked by Dr. McCoy if this was messing with the timeline, Mr. Scott replies, “How do you know he didn’t invent the thing?”

I suppose transparent aluminum isn’t as big a thing in the 24th century as radio is for us. (Although if asked, most people would identify the inventor of radio as Marconi, if they had any idea at all. Grrr. Tesla, folks, Tesla. Look it up.) Still, Scotty wasn’t worried by bootstrapping materials science and creating the classic causality loop.

To make sure that humanity doesn’t die out by being stranded on Earth, the post-humans leave messages for Murph that subtly suggest to Coop that his trip through the wormhole might not be the sheer folly it seems. Therefore, he goes, lots of crazy stuff happens, and he in desperation makes the dive through the black hole’s event horizon. There they have set up the commo lattice – referred to in the film as a tesseract – for him to use to provide signals to Murph at various times of her life, including those that influenced him in deciding to go in the first place. He also can send the data the older version of Murph needs to make the breakthrough in mastering gravity so that we can get off this rock. He does this by manipulating the second hand on a watch through gravitational effects, sending a lot of data collected from inside the event horizon. It seems to take him only a short time to do this, but as we know, time inside a black hole’s event horizon is different from outside it.

So at the end of it all, no aliens – but something that started out as humanity has to help get its ancestors off the planet, or they won’t exist, and they placed the wormhole in orbit around Saturn just for that purpose. Seems like a long shot, but if they had the history of what had happened at that time, all they had to do is make sure the history had a little help to play out correctly.

Those of you who are believers in the “Many Universes” hypothesis probably won’t buy into this as much. In another universe, no wormhole; in yet another, no Coop to save them, etc. If that interpretation could be brought into the plot, the tesseract would have shown Murph in her room in many, many more versions of the situations that first and last provided communication with her. But the film stays firmly rooted in a traditional causality.

It’s not a new idea, but it certainly is played out in a refreshing fashion. I was happy to see a plot that took that much of the audience’s attention to follow in a big mainstream movie.

There are the nitpicks. First, Coop’s training sucks. They pretty much throw him into the ship with three other people, and away they go. That is necessary so that he can be the space cowboy he needs to be, flying the Ranger by hand at several key points in the movie.

Questions have been raised about the Ranger. Why did it need a big chemical-powered, multistage booster to get off Earth, yet takes off and lands under its own power on several other planets, including one with a surface gravity of 1.3 G? I have a possible answer, though it isn’t covered in the movie: antimatter.

The ships are a combination of tech we have now (Rangers are covered with shuttle-like protective tiles, for example) and very high tech (robots with advanced AI.) We know that making antimatter, at least the way we know we can do it right now, is very slow, requires very large equipment, and is very power-hungry. Maybe the Ranger could have taken off on its own, but say it uses 25% of its available fuel to do so. No more fuel after that. Let’s save some by using a sort of pseudo Saturn V that we had laying around. We may have fueled it with the last antimatter we could produce.

The Ranger has little room for fuel stores, so fuel has to be something very energetic, like antimatter, but it can’t take up a lot of space. Maybe a couple of tanks of reaction mass to interact with the antimatter can be squeezed in. Hydrogen is the best choice if the antimatter is really anti hydrogen, but it isn’t very dense so the tanks have to be insulated like crazy and be larger than LOX or H2O tanks would be.

The other nitpick is tidal effects. On the first planet the explorers are confronted with a tidal wave 4000 feet tall. The planet is too close to the black hole – close enough that time slows down a lot, and tidal effects on the ocean are enormous. The same tidal effects should affect everything on the planet, so it eventually will be torn apart. That to me means it isn’t a good candidate for a new home for mankind.

Also, apparently the light from the black hole (huh?) is bright enough to provide light bright as day – at least, a cloudy day in Iceland. Where is that light coming from, really? You would need it to grow crops. None of these planets sounds particularly pleasant or survivable in the long term!

My major gripe about the film is the score. Hans Zimmer was apparently asked by Christopher Nolan to do something unique. He’s done that if unique means boring, loud and simplistic. Sometimes it was so loud it covered important dialog. The score lent more of a feeling of slowness to the movie as it slogged along, repeating the same phrases over and over again. Did Zimmer listen to too much Philip Glass? I would have thought a score like Alan Silvestri’s for The Abyss would have been appropriate, instead. I think this movie would have been a complete knockout, Oscar-worthy, if the score wasn’t so annoying and boring.

Nolan likes using IMAX cameras, he likes using real film over digital recording, and he likes using practical EFX over CGI when possible. All are great, but remember, far more viewings of this movie will be on TV screens than in the theater. Until we all have our 85 inch 4K HDTVs that extra quality won’t be noticed…but a bad score will be.

In summary, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not the landmark film some people have said it is, but it’s very good, and I highly recommend it to you.

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Audiobook recommendation: “Solaris,” by Stanislaw Lem

September 15, 2014

I’ve been away from this blog for over a month and a half, because life has a habit of intervening. We had new windows put in the house and a host of smaller projects, some which we did and some which we hired out. In any case I had to be around a lot of the time and my time was not always my own. Oh, and I set up a couple of web sites for organizations. Maybe more on that in another post.

What compelled me to write tonight, though, is that I tend to listen to audiobooks when traveling alone, or working in the yard or garage. I’m at the beginning of marching band contest season, so I will be spending some time on the road in the car. Music doesn’t keep me as alert when I’m driving through the fields of Indiana as audiobooks do.

Some months ago I set up a Platinum account at Audible.com. I have six credits built up that I haven’t used to select books yet, and I’m behind in my listening, so I may have to downgrade that subscription in a few months.

Sort of on a whim I bought the audiobook of “Solaris,” by Stanislaw Lem, a Polish science fiction author who wrote the book in 1961. It was translated into English in 1970, but Lem himself didn’t care for the translation. (That translation was actually taken from a Polish-to-French translation, with results you might expect. Maybe 80,000 words or so of the telephone game.)

For the 50th anniversary of the publishing of the book a new direct-to-English translation was finally commissioned by Audible, and made by Bill Johnson, with the cooperation of the Lem Estate. It was read by Alessandro Juliani, who I know best as Felix Gaeta in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. The book is written in the first person, and Juliani reads it as if he is telling you the story himself, in a generally quiet, intimate voice. It seems very appropriate to the tone of the book.

Short synopsis, without spoilers: Psychologist Kris Kelvin is called to the human research station hovering just above the planet Solaris, a very unusual planet in a stable orbit about two stars, one red and one blue-white. The planet has been studied off and on for almost a hundred years, and the research team on the station is now reduced to only three. One of these researchers has asked for Kelvin’s help, but does not disclose why.

The planet is almost completely covered by an ocean of a gelatinous substance. It has been theorized over the years that the ocean is somehow sentient, since it builds huge structures within itself and then destroys them, but no means of communication can be found. The ocean is sometimes responsive to human stimuli and sometimes not, and eventually the teams of researchers lost interest in the planet out of frustration. Various theories about what Solaris is and what it is not have been proposed, but nothing definitive has been determined in decades.

Kelvin finds the two surviving members of the station’s crew to be furtive in answering his questions. Both seem distracted, almost haunted, but are unwilling to say what is bothering them. The third member, the one who called Kelvin in the first place, is dead, apparently at his own hand.

I won’t spoil the story for you. If I say any more, it will spoil it, at least a little. Let it suffice to say that Lem created an amazing world, one that even today, with our supposed advanced technologies, seems fresh and new – and presented problems for humans to deal with on a very personal level as well.

There have been two film versions of the book. One was made in 1972 and was Russian; the other is a 2002 version starring George Clooney and directed by Steven Soderbergh. Both focus on the personal issues of the characters and give very little time to the awesomeness of the planet’s intelligent ocean itself. I’m not terribly interested in seeing either; this happens with movies very often – we must make movies that are “character-driven,” even if we have to distort the science terribly to do so.

I’ve not finished the audiobook yet, but I think it is so good that I recommend it even before finishing it. I don’t know how the story ends, myself, at least not yet. I’ve toyed with ideas of how humans might deal with extraterrestrial intelligence that is completely impossible to understand myself. Most aliens are people in rubber masks, even in “hard” science fiction books. What happens if what we find is so alien as to be impossible to communicate with?

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The best thing you will see on the internet today

March 6, 2014

I found it on io9.com: velociraptors replaced by cats.

I’m just thinking about other movies where this would be awesome…

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“Who is John Galt?” Asked. Answered.

January 25, 2014

lreganSo finally some of the cast of “Atlas Shrugged, Part III” has been announced. The previous two installments had completely different casts, and this final chapter is no different.

This time around Dagny Taggart will be played by Laura Regan (above), who is, if anything, less known that the previous two actresses who played her. I liked Taylor Schilling from Part I a lot, Samantha Mathis not so much.

And Hank Rearden will be played by, of all people…

rmorrowYep. “Northern Exposure” Rob Morrow. This guy is about as unlikely a Hank Rearden as I can imagine. He’s a well-known actor, but either Grant Bowler (Part I) or Jason Beghe (Part II) would be better. (Beghe is currently starring in a new network tv show, “Chicago PD.”)

Francisco d’Anconia, who should be a couple of years older than Dagny, will be played by experienced character actor Joaquim de Almeida. He’s almost twenty years too old, but a good actor. I liked him in “Clear and Present Danger.” He’s been in a million things before.

But the big question is: who will be playing John Galt?

This guy:

kpolahaI didn’t recognize him either. His name is Kristoffer Polaha, known for shows like “Ringer” and “Made In Jersey.” He has the look, and he is, in real life, the same age as the new Dagny. But he and Francisco and Ragnar Danneskjold were supposed to be about the same age, attending Patrick Henry University together. That part of the storyline will probably be downplayed in this film.

I liked other two films pretty well…I preferred the casting of the first one better, and the script of the second one.

The film should be out before the November 2014 elections. I look forward to how they finish it out. The book ends fairly depressingly, I cannot see how the film could end in another way. It’s a cautionary tale, after all. Too bad that generally, only those who already know that will watch it.

 

 

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Alternate Universes that we don’t think of as alternate universes

December 5, 2013

There are many books and short stories having to do with”alternate universes” – timelines similar to our own but in which a single historical even changes, and over time the results of that action have large consequences. There are the Sidewise Awards, given in both long and short form.

I won’t bore you with a history of alternate history. You can google it faster than I can write about it. However, you might want to check out the work of Harry Turtledove and Robert Conroy, at least.  Maybe one of these days I will list some of my favorites.

But here I’m talking about something else, primarily television shows. Almost all political series that take place in the present day could be called alternate history. Take “The West Wing,” which was running when the 9/11 attack took place. There wee references to it, but not much, and it did not profoundly effect the timeline in the show after that – even though it did in our timeline.

But here’s my favorite: “In the universe of “Star Trek,” no “Star Trek” ever aired.” I don’t remember where I first read that, but I’ve pondered it over the years in idle moments. For example, apparently manned space exploration continued in ST timeline more extensively than in ours – it was good enough to loft a sleeper ship in the late 1990s to get rid of Kahn Noonian Singh and his motley crew. There was that pesky nuclear war around that time, or after; and the Genetics War before Kahn was exiled, but even that didn’t keep Zephram Cochrane from building a warp ship from an old Titan missile.

Phoenix_launch (1)

 

Some like to say that ST inspires us toward that sort of Utopian vision apparently held by Gene Roddenberry. It’s more complicated than that, but I think it is safe to say that ST didn’t really inspire us to maintain manned exploration of space – the Trekkers couldn’t even get NASA to name a real space shuttle after the Enterprise. (The one they named was a test article used for glide tests.) Perhaps a series taking place in the nearer future would have done so more effectively.

Sherlock Holmes, in all his manifestations – novels, stories, films, plays, radio shows, television – existed in a particular world. Usually, as in the original, it was very close to actual history. Later versions had him fighting Nazis and working in a more steampunk Victorian England. The two contemporary versions – “Sherlock” in the UK and “Elementary in the US – apparently take place in a world in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about other things. Perhaps his medical practice took off faster, or maybe he decided to stay in London rather than moving to Southsea, and became involved in other activities.

Still, every time someone in “Elementary” is introduced to Holmes, their lack of surprise at the name, except for its odd sound, seems very strange to me.

Some interpretations of quantum physics imply that there is a multitude of universes. Maybe in one of them Barak Obama lost the Senate election to Jack Ryan, and he stayed in the Illinois General Assembly…

 

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Avengers – Ensemble!

February 1, 2013

Avengers ENsembleToo good to not post…Thanks to Ren for passing it on. Are those cats or something in the cello section? And…HULK PLAY BASS!