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November 29, 2006

The Wild Blue Yonder

Do you enjoy long, dialogue-free sequences of astronauts floating in a space capsule? Do you like watching people scuba-diving under Antarctica while voiceover narration pretends this is an alien world? Do you enjoy listening to ear-bleedingly awful music? Do you want to watch an incoherent faux-documentary with some beautiful cinematography but not much else?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of those questions, you’ll love The Wild Blue Yonder, Werner Herzog’s follow-up to last year’s critical lovemuffin, Grizzly Man. It’s a movie that feels like somebody shot a half-dozen reels of documentary footage but couldn’t figure out how to piece it together. The end result is tedious at best, but most of the time it’s just awful.

Its solution to the problem of stringing together all this footage is to create a “science fiction fantasy,” a fictitious narrative using actual theoretical ideas (explained in interviews by real mathematicians and physicists) about space travel and the future of humans colonizing other worlds. Much of the fiction is explained to us by “alien” Brad Dourif (from Deadwood, among other things), who left his dying planet in the Andromeda galaxy to settle on Earth. Apparently, he and his alien cohorts had the idea of building a big city focused around a huge mall, but “nobody came.” It’s unclear whether or not these aliens are pretending to be humans or if they’re peacefully coexisting with humans; at first it seems like the former, but Dourif keeps ranting about things he could have told “them” (the CIA, ostensibly), but nobody believed him. Also, he seems a little bitter and angry about nobody visiting their great, mall-based city. Perhaps if they had said they were aliens, people would have been more interested; without a hook like that, it seems hard to believe that people would rush out to a desert town in the middle of nowhere to go to the Gap.

But then, that’s par for the course in The Wild Blue Yonder. The overwhelming problem here is that the narrative Herzog constructed to loosely tie together the randomness of the documentary footage…doesn’t make much sense. The alien loses focus on his own people’s journey and starts to ramble about Roswell, and how 50 years after that crash, the U.S. government decided to use modern technology to figure out where it came from. The ship released some sort of alien microbe that scientists think may destroy the human race. They launch a rocket immediately; the intention is to head into deep space and find a potential planet to colonize.

This seems like a reasonable solution if the faster-than-light propulsion popular in space-based sci-fi existed here, but this is supposed to take place in a world resembling our own. As the alien explains, with current technology it’d take roughly 6,000 years to reach the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, but that’s already been ruled uninhabitable because it burns too hot to support human life. The nearest star with potential is about 200,000 years away.

I know a seemingly endless series of budget cuts has nearly crippled NASA over the past few decades, but one would think they at least realized the futility of this mission before they sent the rocket up. But it’s only when resources on the ship start to dwindle that anybody on the ground realizes maybe their strategy of sending five people on a 200,000-year journey was a little short-sighted. They need to speed the trip up a little bit.

They come up with a solution, and here’s where all the goofy theoretical physics come in. Real-life NASA scientist Martin Lo explains a theory about chaotic orbits (as opposed to the standard, perfect orbits formerly believed to guide celestial bodies) and how “tunnels” created by the chaos will somehow speed up space travel exponentially, which he calls the “Inter-Planetary Superhighway.” Which is great; it sends them clear to Brad Dourif’s home planet in Andromeda, a trip that should take hundreds of thousands of years (if not millions). It’s never made clear why the crew happens to coincidentally set their sights on this particular planet. Was this the planet located by NASA as the origin of the Roswell ship? Why would they send their people to colonize a planet that released the potentially deadly microbe?

The crew spends time scouting locations on the alien planet. The odd, otherworldly ocean under Antarctica plays the role of the alien planet. The footage is pretty amazing, but it made me wonder why Herzog chooses to pretend this alien-looking world really is an alien world — isn’t it slightly more impressive that such a strange place exists on Earth?

Either way, while the theoretical science behind it is interesting, the “story” Herzog crafts with it just doesn’t work. At all. It reaches its shrill apex of nonsense when an interview with a scientist reveals that a modern colony — as opposed to the type of colony popularized in 1950s sci-fi, which often resembled a huge jungle in a greenhouse — would essentially be a huge mall. Dourif gets really incensed by that, noting again that his alien race had tried to make a mall-based colony. Except the analogy doesn’t work, because they built a mall on a planet that already has tons of them, and the mall was for humans, not their alien race. As opposed to the colonies the scientist was referring to, made by and for humans in places where Earth-friendly shopping malls did not previously exist.

So I’ve established that the story makes no sense, but some might argue this isn’t a movie that’s about story; it’s about imagery and symbolism and poetry, and the themes of consumerism and humans turning everything they touch into a blight zone trump a lousy narrative. It’s just hard to take any of the subtext seriously when the story, which the film takes very seriously, is garbage.

It’s also hard to accept it when the film gives us so much time to sit back and ponder what we’ve already seen. Endless, glacially paced sequences show astronauts bobbing up and down in slow-motion. We get to see them swimming around the “helium atmosphere” of the “alien world.” All of this is set to strident, plodding, cello-and-foreign-choir music that might confuse people into thinking it’s very artistic and deep. I was too busy thinking that whatever points Herzog tries to make are lost in the mess of fiction he’s attached to these images and themes. Its 81-minute runtime feels more like watching the astronauts’ supposed 15-year journey in real-time, and it’s a big bucket of garbage masquerading as art. Avoid.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Film Monthly, Reviews

November 3, 2006

The “Human” Factor

The opening scenes in The “Human” Factor dramatize the humdrum but happy family of John Kinsman (George Kennedy), a U.S. government computer programmer stationed in Naples. When he comes home one evening and finds his wife and children slaughtered, the grief-stricken man decides to take revenge. This leads him on the twisted path of finding who killed his family and why. In the process, he impedes the investigation of local Italian authorities, abuses government resources, and ends up running from the police himself after impersonating a NATO ambassador to get information.

Kennedy’s strong performance as Kinsman is the key to the film’s success. In addition to selling the grief and confusion over his family’s death, Kennedy’s stocky build and hang-dog face give the impression of a regular joe pushed to extremes. This is not a super-badass like Charles Bronson in Death Wish 4: The Crackdown. When he’s chased on foot, Kinsman is visibly out of breath and ready to collapse. When he makes the decision to track his family’s murderers, he doesn’t run out guns blazing, trying to punch and maim his way to the killers. He does it the only way he knows how: with computers.

Obviously, in a movie that’s more than 30 years old, the technology will be dated. This isn’t as severe an issue as it could have been; Kinsman essentially uses a primitive version of Google to search international databases and learn the killers are terrorists who announced their political intentions to Interpol. The use of computers really only gets goofy and far-fetched when he uses an experimental computer program (which he helped to design) to analyze psychiatric profiles and tell him the terrorists’ modus operandi. (Of course, rudimentary forms of this technology exist today, but the key words are “rudimentary” and “30 years old” — it may have been easier to swallow back then, but in our computer-dominated world, it comes across as silly.)

Screenwriters Thomas Hunter and Peter Powell do a good job of making the “high-tech” clues plausible, but this isn’t Kinsman’s only method for tracking these terrorists. Once he discovers how they selected his family “at random” through a newspaper ad, Kinsman calls every American family who placed similar ads, which leads to an actual confrontation with the terrorists. In an effectively suspenseful sequence, he’s nearly shot by both the terrorists and the family he’s trying to save. However, it leads him to a woman’s purse loaded with clues that may lead right to the terrorists.

Modern audiences might not appreciate the slow pacing of the first hour. At times, it does rely too much on “wowing” the 1975 audience with the computer aspects. I’m a nerd, so I found the dialogue-free 90 seconds of George Kennedy unscrewing a phone receiver and plugging it into a computer input jack nostalgic and interesting. I can’t convince myself that other audience members will feel the same way.

Mostly, the pacing is in line with Kinsman’s old-fashioned detective work, slowly building suspense, lingering on Kinsman’s emotional pain as he discovers one of his daughter’s toys in the terrorists’ hideout. This quiet tone is occasionally punctuated with scenes of extreme violence, car chases, gunfights. It all leads to a climax where it seems Kinsman might finally get the revenge he so strongly desires. Director Edward Dmytryk (Murder, My Sweet; The Caine Mutiny) does an excellent job of letting this suspense fester so the payoff in the third act feels earned and gratifying.

This is not to say the film is perfect. There are occasional moments of hackneyed dialogue that not even the excellent cast (which includes Oscar winner John Mills and Italian actor Raf Vallone) can rise above. Several moments seem a little too convenient, none more than when one of the terrorists chases Kinsman into the courtyard of an apartment building and pins him down, and a long and deadly iron chain just happens to be resting on a chair within Kinsman’s reach. (All this on top of the aforementioned computer goofiness…)

Could more have been made of Kinsman’s government/military connection, in light of these politically motivated murders? The fact that the full scope of the terrorists’ plan is never revealed could be seen as a flaw, but it works because Kinsman doesn’t care about their plan (and to that end, neither does the audience); he just wants them dead. However, I wonder if the impact of discovering this was a truly random, senseless act of violence could have dealt yet another emotional blow to Kinsman’s already-weary psyche. However, none of the characters (including Kinsman) seem to consider the possible connection between the target and the terrorists, before or after they learn of the random selection of victims.

The film works, though. Even with the contrivances, it gets the most important thing right: it sticks with Kinsman, his grief, and his desire for vengeance. It never lets up on that aspect, and thanks to George Kennedy’s great acting, it’s easy to ignore the flaws. This film has never been issued on DVD until today, but it’s a worthy entry in the extensive library of ’70s revenge thrillers. Better late than never.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Film Monthly, Reviews

November 28, 2006

My Boys

Having found success airing reruns of recently concluded sitcoms like Sex and the City, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Friends, it appears TBS has sought to create an original sitcom taking elements from these “new classics” in an effort to make a new classic of their own. Have they succeeded? Sort of.

My Boys (premiering tonight at 10/9c) focuses on PJ Franklin (Jordana Spiro), a sportswriter covering the Cubs for the Sun-Times, and her group of male friends. The show attempts a bit of a twist on the Sex and the City formula by surrounding PJ with a group of men with relationship quirks. She helps them manage their love lives while neglecting her own. In fact, she spends roughly four hours per episode explaining in voiceover how she’s like the manager of a baseball team, and “her boys” are the players. This voiceover is the show’s only major narrative flaw, but man is it grating.

Here’s the rundown on the boys and their problems: PJ’s older brother, Andy (Jim Gaffigan), is married with children. He wishes he could still hang around with the boys, drinking and playing poker, but his wife keeps him on a short leash. PJ’s closest friend, Brendan (Reid Scott), can’t seem to stay broken up with his ex-girlfriend. Kenny (Michael Bunin) takes a very long time to lay groundwork to asking a girl out. And Mike (Jamie Kaler) just yells at Kenny a lot. I guess he’s supposed to be the ladies’ man of the group, but like most of the boys, Mike is painted in broad strokes that never quite take shape. It’s a shame, too, because this group of actors are hilarious. They add a lot of nuance and humor to thin characters.

When she’s not ignoring her love life altogether, PJ’s big struggle is to find a guy with whom she can be More Than Friends. She’s somewhat of a tomboy and only has one girl friend (Kellee Stewart). In the pilot, PJ thinks she’s found him when she meets the new kid on the Cubs beat, Bobby Newman (Kyle Howard). Of course, he immediately becomes one of the guys, but the show seems like it’s quietly attempting a will-they-or-won’t-they relationship dynamic.

My Boys comes close to being good. The “boys” are a great ensemble, it has a few laugh-out-loud moments (and several big-smile moments), but unfortunately its flaws outweigh its strengths. The story subject matter is personal and character-driven, which is great if one ignores that we never really get to know these characters. Same with the style of humor — I love that it’s not the typical setup-punchline style of sitcoms, and that more of the humor is derived natrually from the situations and characters. That’s great, but again, the actors obviously have a better awareness of their characters than the writers give to the audience. Even PJ, the character we spend more time with than we should, comes across as underdeveloped. We get the bare essentials of what we need to know about a given character as they’re thrust into the episode’s story, but (the actors’ valiant efforts aside) they never feel like fully realized characters.

My Boys has some odd pacing problems that make the whole show feel stilted and awkward, at least initially. It took awhile to figure out what was causing the problem, and it’s kind of disheartening to write. Jordana Spiro, while gorgeous, ends up being the weak link. She’s hard to believe as a tomboy, she delivers lines in a flat monotone, and her comic timing leaves a bit to be desired. This wouldn’t even be the biggest problem if the show concentrated more on her group of friends (it should), but it’s not really an ensemble so much as a show about a woman who happens to have some friends. Her character drives every story, she’s in almost every scene, and it cripples the show.

There are some hints of better things to come, like several running gags with the boys that are pretty funny (my favorite is Kenny’s insistence on taking girls out for coffee, without asking them out on a date, until they lose interest), and the quality of the writing improved with each episode. The review DVDs I received have episodes one through four and episode nine, which is by far the best episode. Given time to work out its kinks, My Boys could evolve into something pretty entertaining, but it’s not there yet.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 12:00 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Film Monthly, Reviews

November 15, 2006

Sentinels

Author: Todd Ludy
Genre: Science-Fiction/Fantasy
Storyline: 8
Dialogue: 9
Characterization: 9
Writer’s Potential: 9

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]

Recommendation?

Recommend

Logline:

A group of teenagers discover huge, ancient robots underground and are forced to use them to stop an impending alien invasion.

Synopsis:

Fourteen-year-old PERRY RYAN has just ruined his chances to go to Space Camp by failing a class. Instead, his mother BETH forces him to work at a ranch owned by the father of the school bully, BUTCH GILLESPIE. That night, Perry hears and sees strange things coming from nearby Sacred Mountain. Perry and his best friend, CHARLIE, go to explore Sacred Mountain. Butch chases them. They find strange, futuristic chambers and a huge command center that leads them to — three huge, humanoid robots that can be controlled by one person.

They keep this a secret, learning the controls and having fun with the robots in the empty desert basin behind the mountain range. Perry blows the secret by telling his wheelchair-bound brother, RAY, all about the robots and the command center. Soon enough, their secret is completely blown by obnoxious Butch, who takes his robot out for a ride and is spotted by plenty of people. He even harasses twin F-15s escorting a stealth bomber. With Ray guiding them from the underground command center, Perry and Charlie come to the rescue of the stealth bomber, which is damaged and falls out of the sky. Just as they’ve rescued the bomber, the robots are attacked by other, similar robots — from outer space. These robots are armed with powerful weapons. They manage to take down Perry’s robot, but in the process one of them steps on the stealth bomber, which explodes and takes a few of them down.

In the command center, Ray learns from the computer — and tells Perry, Charlie, and Butch — that around 12,000 years ago, a group of aliens known only as “the Scourge” began invading other planets. The sentinel robots they’ve discovered were designed as a defense; reactivating the robots is what has caused them to return, and they intend to destroy anything — and anyone — that has helped to bring them back to life. This leads to a wild battle against the “Scourgebots.” Charlie and Butch are worried they can’t take out the Scourgebots with Perry’s robot down. Ray encourages them to try; in the meantime, they manage to fix Perry’s robot, which shows up at the eleventh hour. Unfortunately, it’s still not functioning that well. Perry is almost killed in an attack against one of the Scourgebots — when a swarm of battle-scarred Sentinels descends from space to provide aid. The lead robot tells Perry at the tide of the war against the Scourge is turning, and his skill in destroying the Scourgebots would make him a valuable asset on the frontlines. Perry agrees to go with and help fight.

Comments:

This screenplay really works well because, rather than being fully plot-oriented, the author gives each of the characters goals and struggles and finds a way to make those robots help them overcome their problems. Perry going off into space to fight is somewhat bittersweet, but it works because that’s been his goal since the beginning of the story. The only real suggestion for improvement is to tighten up the pacing. It’s a 120-page screenplay on the dot, and yet not a whole lot seems to happen. It’s a nice, well-constructed story, but it could be trimmed to make it all move a little faster, without damaging the integrity of the structure. The dialogue and characters are great, though.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 1:37 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Professional Script Coverage