The big three--Asimovs, Analog, F&SF--ganged up on me with their review articles about this book. Things like "haven't had so much fun reading in a long time" and "highly recommended." It was one of those books that got relentlessly good press. So much so that I actually paid for the damn hardcover, so desperate was I for a humorous sci-fi novel. With the 2024 presidential election coming up, I wanted something to counter all that unbelievable negativity.
I was disappointed almost immediately. The main character Francie is a slightly above-average mind and a very generic personality. She read to me like an everywoman for the late-twenties crowd.
Using her, the book puts a band together for a very tepid adventure with very low stakes. There's the alien of course, but even by the end of the book, communication is somewhere between imprecise and unclear, so guess how much nuanced character we get from him? Given that, guess how much pathos we wring from him? Yeah. Then there's Wade, the con man drifter. Connie breaks a baseball bat over her readers' heads telegraphing that he isn't what he seems. Joseph is an old man with an RV that conveniently serves as the fully-stocked moving set for this one-room play. Lyle is an over-the-top cliché UFO conspiracy nut who spouts inane stuff that an eighth grader wouldn't deign to have come out of its mouth. Lastly, there is Eula May who is a very old casino hacker who presents as the grandma next door. She's the closest thing to an engaging character in this cast, for me at least.
Starting to sound familiar? Perhaps a little like the movie Paul? Alien and his pals motoring around the Southwest in an RV while sending up UFO culture? Oh how happy I would have been if this book had any of the wit and dramatic tension of Paul.
Still, a tepid adventure with low stakes could be fine if the other dimensions of the work picked up the engagement slack, but they don't. The character work is weak. The worst trait among all the humans is that Lyle eats like the twenty-year-old jackass that he is. It's a constant diet of nice people being bland.
The world-building is weak and the characters are generic milquetoasts, so what about the plot? That's the worst part. Right up to the end, we don't know it. The plot becomes trying to figure out the plot. It's meta. The alien--Indy (don't ask)--is on a mission that the Scooby Gang wants to help with. So we get hundreds of pages of wandering around aimlessly. How does she fill so many pages? Eighty percent of it is "what is he saying" and endless permutations of maybe it's this or that or the other thing. Quite maddening to me. Another ten percent of the fluff is navigation; take this highway or that; golly the Vegas Strip is slow; let's walk through yet another truck stop. Maybe ten percent moves the plot along, such as it is.
And it's not spoiling much to say that there is a romance in the group that culminates in a marriage. Despite having no meaningful interactions, Francie finds herself in love at the end. It's amor ex machina. But don't worry, they really are in love. In this book, they don't need to build a relationship, they just need an alien to assure them that they love each other. I'm serious.
To give you an idea about how tepid this book is, here is an inventory of characteristics that shape it as an elementary school read: no one dies, nothing blows up, no one drinks alcohol or does any drugs, no one has any sex, no one discharges any weapons, no one has a physical altercation (beyond restraining people), and no cool tech is introduced.
Ms. Willis has won every award even peripherally related to sci-fi. She's a properly invested Grand Master. So when she writes an insipid plot about boring cutout characters dealing with an alien that can't communicate--all in the most boring prose possible--no reviewer dares to call it out.
Clearly, I'm out of sync with the industry's taste. It explains a lot, really. Once I got through the last page, I deposited my expensive hardcover in the trash. Maybe you will enjoy it more. God knows all the reviewers did.
It had been three weeks since I had been to a movie. Normally, I go every weekend, but the last three weeks have been devoid of anything even plausible to watch. I'm pretty flexible when I get desperate for a movie to watch, but the only other thing remotely plausible was The Marvels, but the previews just looked so stupid. So, I was excited to see The Holdovers.
The first thing to note is that it is a period piece. It starts in 1970. As a guy born before then, it had some nostalgia value for me. The second thing to note is that I wasn't annoyed at the writing. As a guy who writes and critiques fiction every day, I can't turn off my editor brain. Any bullshit writing that surfaces immediately pulls me out of a movie, so I'm happy to report that I found the writing to be quite strong. I was impressed that they dodged a lot of the tropes. This was clearly one talented person's vision, not the Hollywood focus-grouped-to-death crap that usually gets the big distribution deal.
The previews tell the outline of the story. It's Christmas at boarding school and some of the kids have nowhere to go. Someone's got to supervise them, so let's assign Paul Giamati's character. The movie is a character study of him. Fortunately, they layer in two other robust characters played by Dominic Sessa and DaVine Randolph who deliver standout performances.
Subtlety is what I loved about this script. The student-on-student hatred wasn't some over-the-top Carrie at the prom crap, just modestly hurtful and funny stuff. The school politics are just the right amount of cruel. Everyone and everything is written with nuance. I didn't always agree with the choices, but that was part of what made it interesting to me.
The movie is shot quite quietly. There are no soaring musical cues, just some period music. There isn't a thrilling pace, just a functional gait to the end of the Christmas break. In fact, it's so quiet that there isn't even an epilogue. The ending is a little harsh and upends our characters, and they don't wrap it up for us with any kind of evocative epilogue. It's a risk. Some people want it all spelled out. Some people like to fill the ambiguity with their preferences. I think it works well.
What makes this movie is Paul Giamatti. He plays this tragic-comic faux academic to perfection. His character is an irascible ass most of the time, but hilarious. As he and the kid navigate Christmas break, they layer in a few adventures that organically dip into both of their backstories which are quite evocative. So it's sort of tragic-comic as they lurch through the movie.
One great surprise was DaVine Randolph. Narratologically, she is a writer's trap in this woke world: a black woman, a cook, very fat, and wise. She's perilously close to the "Mammy" trope. Fortunately, her character is written engagingly enough that all those labels are irrelevant. She functions like the moral conscience of the movie. Ms. Randolph does a superb job and plays off Giamatti excellently.
In the end, it's a strong production well performed. I found the movie to be finely balanced between comedy and tragedy. They didn't milk the pathos. They didn't go for cheap laughs. It's thoughtful and nuanced. I recommend it to everyone..
Do you remember broadcast TV? I mean literally pulled out of the air by an antenna? Those of you under thirty years old probably don't. Personally, I didn't get cable TV until after college when I lived on my own. My father was too cheap to pay for it. This was all back when TV was on the NTSC standard.
These days I'm the maximum cord cutter. I buy internet service and stream several services through apps on streaming devices to cobble together a collection of I don't know how many channels. That's not even getting to all the on-demand content those streaming services provide.
Anyway, recently Comcast/Xfinity had an outage in my area that lasted about 21 hours. It was the longest I'd experienced in my life. I'm not so weak that I can't live without TV, but I wanted to be able to get the news and weather. Days after the outage, I had forgotten about it. My girlfriend, however, had not. She was determined that we have an alternative. So she bought an HDTV antenna.
That was new to me. In college, I started in electrical engineering, so I understood the idea. There weren't a lot of powered antennas when I grew up. So I thought it was going to be crappy reception of a handful of channels. I was shockingly wrong.
I hooked this thing up, told my TV to scan for channels, and damned if it didn't find 28 HD channels (No one broadcasts NTSC/analog TV anymore). And the picture quality was astonishingly crisp. There was no static snow, no vertical/horizontal hold weirdness, just really good picture and sound.
So, yeah, yay team, but practically speaking, who cares? Well, in the ever-changing streaming landscape, one of the hiccups I have run into is local channels. Everyone will sell you the marquee networks, but if you want local channels, it gets ugly and sometimes expensive. You typically pay extra to get access to local channels. Another hiccup I hit sometimes is Spanish content. I've been studying Spanish informally for years and like to listen to Spanish TV to keep up with it. I love to have it on in the background while I'm working in my basement shop. So, the Spanish package from your cable provider? Usually another pile of money, but not anymore. I get Telemundo, Univision, Unimas, and LATV over the air for free. Though, part of the bounty of Spanish TV is because I live in Pueblo Colorado.
Other than sharing my astonishment at being so ignorant of what so-called HD TV was, I was encouraged by the potential cost savings. Now I can get my local channels and a good deal of Spanish over the air for free. The only thing is that over-the-air channels don't come with digital DVRs. But people still buy DVR boxes--standalone DVR units (remember Tivo?). Cue the SouthPark 'Member Berries.
I feel old.
I was looking forward to Asteroid City for months. I know better. Every time I build a movie up in my mind, it's almost impossible to meet those expectations. I didn't much enjoy this movie. I'll also spoil the snot out of it, so if that sort of thing annoys you, stop reading now.
The good news is that there is a lot of fun stuff in it, scenes I mean. Asteroid City is where this tiny metallic meteorite fell to Earth. It's a tourist attraction but also the site of a science competition. So we get a mixture of tourists and competitors with their families staying in a collection of tiny bungalows. They are forced to stay together because the government quarantines the place. In true Wes Anderson style, each character is severely quirky, so when they are forced to interact, you get the fun stuff he is famous for.
That is, there is a bunch of fun, quirky characters who are pretty entertaining, scene by scene. The problem I had is that those scenes aren't stitched into anything resembling a coherent narrative. And, yes, I've seen other Wes Anderson movies that have similarly weird characters that very obliquely meander their way through a plot. So, I didn't expect much of a pace, or plot, really. But Asteroid City is incoherent, both for the lack of a salient plot, and the structure.
Structure? Yes, structure. There are two movies in this movie. One was filmed in the desert in a washed-out pastel palette, and the other is a black-and-white flick set in a city theater. Constantly throughout the movie, they cut to Bryan Cranston doing stuff in this theater company. I can't say I parsed much of it because it was so disjointed, but it appeared to me that the black-and-white stuff was talking about developing a play for the stage, the story of which was the color footage interwoven into the film. So everything gets a bit meta, so to speak. The black-and-white stuff seemed to inform the color stuff. Pardon my vagueness, but I was not interested in trying to parse out some clever mote of wit from the pile of crap dumped on the screen. If there was something there, it took more effort to ferret out than I cared to put out.
One big problem is that the cast is too large. They can't service everyone. Margot Robbie appears in one single throwaway scene. Jeff Goldblum has maybe five seconds, sitting in a space alien rubber suit. Matt Dillon gets a little more screen time playing the auto mechanic, and on and on. It felt to me like Wes had to rotate through each of the big-name actors to fill a quota or something. Bizarrely, there is actually a brief glimpse, blurry, on a dirty mirror, of Scarlet Johanson fully nude--maybe half a second. Why? That's one of a thousand questions I had bouncing through my head as I watched this thing.
By the end of the movie, I was bemused. A good portion of my brain wondered if there was something wrong with me. Perhaps there is. The movie stopped more than ended. I don't know if anything was resolved. There certainly wasn't any emotion to it. It ended. I walked out. In the future I will likely skip Wes Anderson movies until someone convinces me he produced something worth watching.
As failures (for me) go, this is an interesting one, but I hope to never see it again. I encourage anyone who feels they have to watch it, to not do so sober. I suspect this movie would be much more enjoyable in an altered state of mind.
I had little faith in this movie going in. Cocaine Bear was such a disappointment that I was gunshy about trying another farcical comedy. The only reason I went was because I really like to see a movie in the theater every weekend and there were slim pickings this weekend. I certainly wasn’t going to throw my money at another insipid Fast & Furious episode.
Happily, The Machine is everything I hoped it would be. It's a tribute to the movie makers that they took such a brainless pretext and built a very strong comedy around it. The setup is in the previews: Bert's misadventures in Russia during college comes back to haunt him thirty years later. There's this crime boss who simply must have his precious watch that Bert and friends stole from him thirty years previously. All his miscreant kids want to find it to secure their position as his successor.
Stupid as that setup is, they make it work brilliantly. It's about the tone. They manage to keep it ridiculous without going over the top. They manage to kill a lot of people and have you laughing about it. They infuse all the side characters with quirky personalities that the performers managed to get on film. They cast it perfectly.
Speaking of casting, Mark Hamil does a stunningly good job playing Bert's father. As a guy who grew up watching his teenage mug torturing lines in Star Wars, I'd convinced myself that his best work was as the voice of Fire Lord Ozai in Avatar the Last Air Bender. I'm happy to report that I had him wrong. Somewhere in the last 40+ years, he became a very strong performer.
There is a bit of a nostalgia bias in this flick. Because Bert is middle-aged, they have callbacks to pop references from his younger days that might not land with anyone born this century. Other than that, this movie is very entertaining. It's also very re-watchable because so much of what works is in the performances rather than the plot.
Go watch it. I'll be surprised if you don't like it at least a little. Most of you will love it. It's an instant classic in the vein of The Hangover.
It was hard to miss the ads for this movie, at least for me. They used a thumping Led Zepplin tune. It was another great piece of music from my youth that had fallen--become cheap enough--to use to advertise a movie. Ironically, no Zepplin is used in the movie, only in the ad. I had no illusions about this being a great oeuvre, but it had Michelle Rodriguez and Chris Pine in it, so I figured why not. It couldn't be any worse than John Wick 4 which I saw last weekend.
It starts with our two heroes (Chris and Michelle) in jail. Despite the horrendous conditions, they are chipper, healthy, and up for parole. They have the requisite we're-so-tough moment when they beat on a menacing prisoner.
A few minutes in, the movie goes off the rails for me. They are at their parole hearing and lay out their backstory to the panel deciding their fate. So, it's a string of exposition bomb flashbacks that try to set up what narratologists call the 'inciting event' as well as any other backstory it might be convenient to toss into this structural garbage pail. It's boring. It's unevocative. Pine's character has a daughter played by the least charismatic child actress I've seen on screen in a long time. He's going to resurrect her mother with a magical artifact. But since the mother died when the child was too young to remember her, it's a non-event, an abstraction, a check box on some producer's clipboard more than proper motivation.
The tone is firmly established when the rambling random exposition ends and the two heroes break out of jail literally as their parole is granted. I don't mind that. If they can be witty about it, I'm happy to ride along. The thing is, they aren't that witty about it.
At the opening of the movie, that's the plot: resurrect mom for the unlikable kid who can't even remember her. That becomes: raid the vault of their former friend turned enemy (played by Hugh Grant). That in turn becomes: obtain the Helm of Destruction to defeat the vault security. All the while…why should I care?
The biggest crime of the movie makers is that there turn out to be much higher plot stakes in the background. Hugh Grant's character is propped up by an uber-sorceress who plans to use a festival to create an army of undead slaves to take over the country. Seriously, in the background the entire time was this truly horrific, evocative, interesting plot that was ignored until the last ten minutes of the movie.
Perhaps worst of all is that, piece-wise, they film some decent scenes. They simply fail to use the script and editing to pace us along on an escalating ride to an exciting climax. The pieces were all there, but they were really clumsy about how they knit it all together.
All that is a long-winded way of saying this was a mediocre movie. The casting of the child and the bad guy dragged the movie down. The clumsy plot structure made the viewing experience choppy. The late revelation of high stakes wasted the setup. The result was a poorly-paced movie with little suspense and no emotional payoff at the end.
I suspect that intoxicants would significantly enhance the viewing experience.
The bland title "65" is because someone already used the title "65 Million Years Ago." It's sci-fi so I had to see it. I didn't care for the previews. Watching them, I actually thought they were doing some kind of time travel anomaly: Humans get sent back in time by ____ to the time of dinosaurs. The truth is far dumber. This movie is about another race exploring the Earth mere hours before the dinosaur-killing asteroid hits it.
Yeah, that's right. There's an alien race of completely human people that decide to explore the Earth or something near it. They open the movie with a lot of subtitles to explain the setup. Of course, once I saw that, I thought they were going for some Earth-seeded-by-aliens angle. The problem with that is that the fossil record shows hominids evolving over perhaps five million years yielding something like the modern human about 200,000 years ago. So that plot would fly in the face of current science. Having seen the movie, I can say that even that stupidity would be better than what they delivered.
I intend to spoil this movie for you, so stop reading now if that will annoy you. I do it without misgivings because there's precious little to spoil about this movie.
The actual plot is more boring and many times as stupid as whatever you thought it might be. A man goes on a two-year mission to explore something--we're never told what. He's ferrying a bunch of people in cryo pods. Ostensibly that's a year out and a year back. So, somewhere within a year's travel of Earth is their amazingly advanced planet filled with perfectly human inhabitants. How does that travel occur? Well, on screen, it looks like three engines spitting blue flame do the job. Oh, and when they crash, they can send messages home in mere hours. How? Who knows. At the very end, their little escape pod will apparently be able to meet up with a rescue ship.
Why am I being a hard-science-fiction dick about all that? Mostly because it destroys the tension of the plot. If you can have real-time communications with home and can arrange a rescue rendez-vous in near real-time, what's the tension? They aren't so badly stranded. This isn't Gilligan's Island, just a breakdown on the side of the road with AAA on the way.
But wait, don't harp on gritty little plot holes, let's focus on the emotional heart of the piece. Adam Driver's character has a daughter that dies while he's away. The one survivor from the cryo pods just happens to be a little girl about his daughter's age. She even shares her long dark hair.
Ostensibly the pilot's broken parent-heart is supposed to inject some pathos into this movie. It really doesn't.
What you really get is a dinosaur movie. It's a guy and a child running through the wilderness fighting off dinosaur attacks. Think the fat guy in Jurassic Park getting hunted when his Jeep breaks down. What was appropriately a little side interlude in that movie was the entire plot of 65.
I'm leaving out a lot of the plot holes, but I want to share my favorite one. At the end, their escape ship is upside down. It can't launch. Instead of the A-Team montage of let's upfit the van, er, fix the ship, we have a dinosaur attack and magically flip the ship over into launch position without breaking its FTL drive and sensitive systems. It was at least a good laugh. You'd have a harder time jump-starting a car than they had getting back into space with their vehicle that had survived a crash and rough handling by a dinosaur.
My point is that there isn't much of a plot, setup, or characters here. Adam Driver is boring to watch. The setup is laughably stupid. The timing of crashing on Earth mere hours before that famous extinction event is absurd. Driver's character having a handheld thingy that could identify and time the asteroid from him pointing it at the sky was even more asinine.
This movie is so empty that they frontloaded fifteen minutes of Adam Driver's character and his family just to get this thing to come up to ninety minutes.
For me, the most interesting thing about this movie is wondering how it got made. People sat around a table with this script, nodded their heads, and decided it was worth spending forty-five million dollars to make it. Even more confusing is why you would put Adam Driver at the head of this two-person cast.
There's got to be something good in it, right? Some little chunk 'o goodness? There is. If you love dinosaurs, there are a couple of excellent dinosaur scares.
Intoxicants might make this an enjoyable movie to watch, either by making you too torpid to notice the problems or by kicking it into the so-bad-its-good zone.
Missing surprised me by having an excellent plot with great twists. So I was disappointed that they couldn't leverage that plot to produce an excellent movie. For me, the way they shot this movie destroyed it. The fact that the main character was about the single most unlikable teen girl didn't help either.
These days, production values tend to be high, so what about the way that they shot this is so bad? It's all cell phone and webcam footage. When I say 'all' I mean every damn frame of this movie. Most of the footage is the main character sitting at her Mac Book. We watch as the teen slacker navigates websites, and interacts with other characters. I get how the occasional scene filmed that way could be evocative, but trust me when I tell you, by the end of the movie, it's infuriating. I saw it as cheap, boring, and lazy way to tell a story. That's how they got this wide release out the door for $7 million.
Then there's the main character. I actually forgot her name. She is a lazy teen slacker who has a scare because momma money tit goes missing. The first part of the movie is a rote, parents-away-kids-party sequence; the kid throws a house party with the 'emergency' money that mom gave her while she's away on a trip. She's so damn lazy that she hires a maid service to clean up after the party--on mom's dime. Even worse, the kid is a camera, not a character. She has no distinguishing character traits, goals, aspirations, or ambition.
Also, as good as the plot is in essence, there is a huge plot hole near the end that amounts to the movie chickening out, lacking the guts to give us anything but sunshine blown up our collective asses at the end.
My suggestion is that you not watch this movie. Even intoxicated, enjoying this movie would be tough.
This movie was one I looked forward to seeing. The previews made it look like a wild ride behind the scenes in Hollywood. It was to a point, but ultimately I consider it an interesting failure.
The performances were quite strong. Jean Smart has a smaller role as an aging gossip reporter, and she surprised me to the upside. I didn't even realize it was her until I looked up the credits. Margot Robbie is always a strong performer. I could watch her read the phone book. Despite those strong performances, something between the writing and editing failed in this film.
It starts as a chronicle of Nellie LeRoy, a young beautiful wannabee actress in the silent era. I originally thought that was an interesting perspective--silent film. Her rise is entangled with that of a Mexican immigrant named Manny. Brad Pitt's character seemed to be there for decoration. The thing is, I had it all wrong.
Babylon is not about Nellie LeRoy or Manny or Brad Pitt's character. It's about Hollywood. We don't really find that out until the last third of the movie when all the characters blow up and the audience is left with nothing. They show their hand in Jean Smart's last scene where Brad Pitt confronts Jean Smart about a nasty article her character wrote. The speech she gives him lays out the ethos of the movie: Hollywood is a monster that doesn't need any of us.
Philosophically, I'm not against any of that per se, but the way the writing and editing are done, it comes across as one movie with an odd switch-up at the end.
It's not a spoiler to tell you about the ending because it's a mess. It's a two or three-minute montage of scenes of Hollywood transforming into its modern form; old buildings get torn down as the town relentlessly grows.
So, Babylon is a collection of vignettes: the crazy orgiastic parties; early production techniques in the desert; secret underground forbidden entertainment; the growing pains of the sound era; the traps for the young idiot who gets her first real paycheck. Then it ends with that insipid montage that just turns the knife. Yes, you got interested in a bunch of characters that never went anywhere, but haha, we fooled you. Aren't we so clever?
To my taste, no. They weren't clever. The screenplay didn't give us a cogent narrative and went full-bore cliché. And the editing? Obnoxious. Over three hours long, this thing could have had 40 minutes cut out of it and been stronger for it.
If you're a movie-industry junkie, this is required watching if only for some of the technical details that make it on screen. Everyone else should stay away from this.
I guess I'm showing my age by saying that this movie is the kind of thing that just wouldn't have gotten a wide release when I was young. Why? Because it's about cannibals, "eaters" they like to call themselves. They are people that eat real food, but periodically feel the strong urge to eat other people. As much as it sounds like sideways vampirism, they don't offer any supernatural explanation for it. The only "powers" they have is a sense of smell that lets them identify other eaters.
Thematically, the eating thing is a stand-in for any addiction. There is even a tertiary character who tells the main character that he reminds him of every addict he's ever met. As vague and artsy as that sounds, Chalamet seems to have embraced the concept. He is emaciated in this movie. When you see him, the first thought you'll have is: addict.
The strongest part of this film is the sense of place. The time is set back in the '80s, ostensibly so the characters could get away with casual serial murdering without running afoul of modern technology that might catch them. Every location is deep in poverty. It's shot and textured in such a way as to imbue the audience with a powerful sense of operating in this sub-world of poverty in the US. There isn't a nice location or even the barest sense of optimism in the entire picture. It was stunningly effective.
The performances were very strong. They were what kept me watching. The plot is rather asinine and the setup incredulous, but the way it was shot and the performances kept me immersed.
That's the problem with this film. There is enough there to keep me watching, but the pacing and plot didn't deliver. They didn't lead to a payoff. The movie eventually just ends, much as it begins, with a cleared-out apartment. In that sense, it's a vignette more than a story. All that's to say that when the lights came up, I was bemused.
And yes, they show people eating people in this movie. It's revolting in the extreme. Most importantly, it's not worth sitting through those bits in hopes of some poignant resolution or payoff. It never comes.
I don't recommend you watch this movie.