Archive for November, 2007

Pathfinder

Pathfinder Picture

Pathfinder; losing ground every step of the way and setting a new standard in phlegmaking. . . .

Director Marcus Nispel’s film, Pathfinder, is built on an interesting speculative premise. If the Vikings discovered America before Christopher Columbus, why is there little evidence that they were here? It then moves a step further by asking, what if there was a Viking child who was adopted by the native american tribes and raised as their own. Regretfully, it is a step much too far.

Karl Urban, who has made a career out of playing a handsome warrior (Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Chronicles of Riddick), continues this trend in Pathfinder. Here, he plays Ghost, an abandoned Viking child who is raised by a tribe of native americans. Ghost grows to be larger and more aggressive than his native american counterparts and is trying to find his place amongst his adoptive people. When the Vikings return for more pillage and rape, Ghost is drawn into the fray and becomes the “warlord” for his people.

Along the way, the movie introduces a weak love story between Ghost and Starfire (who does this naming, anyway?) played generically by Moon Bloodgood. There is also a requisite rivalry for Starfire’s affections between Ghost and Blackwing (Jay Tavare), which is, of course, decided in Ghost’s favor when the Vikings inevitably return.

Almost a fixture in any movie about native american pseudo-history, actor Russell Means returns playing the tribe’s current Pathfinder. A cross between a pony-tailed Yoda and Robin Hood, Pathfinder attempts to help Ghost find his way between cultures. This interaction/education seems a bit stilted, although it is one of the better parts of the film.

Poorly placed in this film is the talented actor Clancy Brown, here on leave from HBO’s fascinating Carnivale. Brown plays the Viking leader Gunnar, who leads his band of Viking savages with a combination of shocking violence and an odd sort of warrior wisdom.

Brown is hindered by the massive helm and heavy armor that he wears because it masks his facial expressions and understates his physically menacing presence (although a pretty nice guy in person, I’ve heard). In essence, it disguises his sheer size by making it look accentuated. If you question this assessment, rent the inconsistent but good movie, Highlander (the first one, not the cr*ppy sequels) or rent the first season of Carnivale.

The movie is not completely without merit, despite several very large mis-steps. It presents an interesting visual panoroma, filled with greys, blues and grainy white images.
In addition, the violence hearkens back to the excellent movie 300, with crimsons arcs and splashes, but does so without the style and panache of that film. Some of the interactions between Pathfinder and Ghost, and between Ghost and Gunnar are well done–although these are inconsistent.

The Viking era of conquest and discovery is a fascinating period. There have been a few movies that have looked at this time period and also made for fascinating filmmaking. One of the best examples of this is The 13th Warrior, which I would recommend renting instead of this much more mediocre phlegm.

I give it * 1/2 Jessicas out of a possible four.

EK

MonkeyCam Definition

MonkeyCam (mngk-km)

NOUN:
pl. mon·key·cams

  1. A video or cinematographic technique involving strapping a camera on the back of a monkey and allowing it to run around the studio or set. Originally a fixture on Saturday Night Live’s Waynes World skits.

  2. Slang A video or cinematographic technique that simulates strapping a camera on the back of a monkey and allowing it to run around a studio or set. Usually a combination of handheld camera technique and tracking questionably bereft of steadicam devices or image stabilization.

VERB:
mon·key·camming

ETYMOLOGY:
Origin unknown

Sunshine

Danny Boyle is a god. Not the sort of god who hurls thunderbolts or protects the underworld. Instead he is the god (or at least the patron saint) of indie sci-fi filmaking.

His latest directorial effort, Sunshine, is one of the best science fiction movies that I’ve seen in recent years. While watching the movie I found myself at various times horrified, thrilled, appalled, angered, sympathetic, amazed and fundamentally transformed by this film. And the most amazing aspect of this is what it cost to make, less than one-tenth of how good it looks.

Sunshine tells the story of a team of scientists aboard the spacecraft Icarus II. With a cast of excellent actors including the hypnotizing but unfathomable Cillian Murphy, (the not so) Fantastic 4’s Chris Evans, Rose Byrne and Michelle Yeoh, the movie quickly establishes it primary scientific premise; that the sun is slowly dying. This conceit establishes the primary conflict, placing the sun as the antagonist and the Icarus II and its crew as the protagonist.

The mission of the team is to place a cluster of hydrogen bombs into the Sun itself and detonate them in the hopes of re-igniting it. According to scientific sources, both the theory of a possible cause for solar failure and the possible solution have some scientific validity, adding to the credibility of the movie’s premise.

After some initial success, the ship begins to suffer failure after failure providing a series of internal conflicts and moral dilemmas for the crew. These culminate when the Icarus II draws close to the Icarus I, which had been launched years before but was thought to have been destroyed.

Boyle has mentioned in interviews that he likes movies that create moral conflicts, where people are forced to make life or death decisions and have to come face-to-face with both their own imperfect humanity and their ability to do both good and evil. This movie is chock-full of such contradictions and decisions, providing real human drama without having to resort to Michael Bay-esque over-the-top action.

Parallels can be drawn between this movie and its godparents; 2001, A Space Odyssey and Ridley Scott’s Alien. However, at its core this movie also shares its fundamental humanity with movies such as The Big Chill and The Ice Storm, which rely much more on real human emotion and conflict as the source of their dramatic energy.

Human drama, edgy sci-fi and scientific integrity all combine to produce a movie that is as close to a masterpiece of science-fiction film-making as I have seen in recent years. This movie is worth the full price of admission. (**** Jessicas out of 4)

Writer-Director Joss Whedon has had an interesting past. Moving from his exceptional work on the movie Toy Story, to Buffy and on to his most recent project, Firefly; Whedon truly has a gift for creating interesting and believable alternate realities, fascinating characters and believable conflict. This is no less evident in Serenity, Whedon’s continuation of the Firefly franchise on the big screen.

Most movies that migrate from science fiction TV to the movies make the transition solely on the basis of popularity. Serenity is the exception.

While Firefly, the series that gave birth to Serenity, had a hard-core following, the transition to the big screen was compelled by Firefly’s failure to catch on rather than its success. Firefly never caught when it was initially struck.

Although the show had an admired but ill-fated run on television, most of the principals involved with the series thought it was destined for the archives once it was pulled from the air. However the story of the voyage that began on Firefly was too compelling to die with the television series, and the story alone drove fans to urge the continuation of the series with an almost religious devotion. The fans brought the story back from the dead, and Serenity was born.

It is easy to understand the reason for Firefly’s demise and cult re-birth. At first glance it appears to be a rather odd story. A group of people dressed like extras from the set of HBO’s exemplary but profane Deadwood cruising from planet to planet on a starship with faster-than-light capability? A crew made up of a courtesan, an aggressive but mentally challenged soldier, a mannish but attractive female starship mechanic, a prim and proper physician, a psychotic super-human weapon housed in a lithe female container, and a sharp-edged but warm-hearted captain suffering from PTSD. This crew makes the happy Star Trek the Next Generation crew look like the Brady Bunch in space.

But this is NOT STNG, and thank God for that. The world of Serenity contains none of the easy camaraderie and simple, heavy-handed lessons that ubiquitously fill the STNG universe. Serenity speeds through a universe riddled with human fallibility, misunderstanding, greed, aggression and profanity. In short, Serenity seems to inhabit a real future, devoid of perfection and tolerance. This complexity is why the story is so compelling, but also why the story did not initially find an audience.

I realize that this review has told you little about the actual plot of the movie. This is by design. Instead of giving away the plot, I want you to go out and rent it. Trust me, you won’t regret it. (**** Jessicas out of four)

The Bourne Ultimatum

I have to admit it. I am an action-movie junkie. Give me Die Hard (the best action movie ever made) or a Frank Miller Sin City/300-fest and I’m good to go. That includes the whole Bourne trilogy, which has turned out to be a surprisingly good series despite the seeming mis-casting of Matt Damon as Jason Bourne. Don’t get me wrong, Damon has done a GREAT job with this series–I’m just remembering the initial announcement prior to the first movie (”You mean the mousy guy from Good Will Hunting?”).

The latest Bourne installment, The Bourne Ultimatum, keeps with the overall quality, fast-pacing and believable action that had been the hallmark of the two previous entries. It begins where the last episode left off, with Jason Bourne rapidly attempting to treat a rather nasty bullet wound he received before the credits rolled on The Bourne Supremacy. The movie barrels forward like a runaway train from that point onward.

Runaway train, that is, without a suspension. The one critique of the movie that I will put strongly forward is that a little monkeycam goes a LONG way. . . . Had I not eaten dinner, or had I spent the evening in an alcohol-induced stupor, I would have been vomiting frequently and violently throughout the movie. The director and the DP made the somewhat questionable decision to film the entire movie hand-held, without (notable) steadicam and in constant, unrelenting motion. This conveys a sense of immediacy and action but also evoked a certain degree of Bourne’s Revenge (which is only somewhat less severe than Montezuma’s, but disconcerting nonetheless).

As was true with previous Bourne movies, the action is incredible and fantastic without interfering with the suspension of disbelief. The obligatory car chase is impressive, frenetic but coherent. The fights are lightning-fast and creative without being unbelievable. All of these factors provide a nice counter-point to this Summer’s earlier action film, Live Free or Die Hard (a f**cking F-35 in VTOL configuration? Give me a break).

Talented actors Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Matt Damon and the refreshingly platonic Julia Stiles round out an excellent cast. I particularly liked the decision to refrain from using Stiles as a romantic interest for Bourne. This helped to develop a degree of integrity and constancy in Bourne that is frequently lacking in today’s movies. This may have been a conscious decision to cast super-agent-assassin Bourne as different than the prototypical James Bond, but that does not make it any less novel.

In fact, I would go out on a limb and state that the movies are actually better than the popular novels from which they were adapted. Like the old Robert Redford vehicle The Natural, the Bourne series was able to transcend the limitations of the book and demonstrate that a picture truly is sometimes worth a thousand words.

Overall, despite the GI distress, I would rate this movie a definite matinée flick with full-price potential (***1/2 Jessicas out of four).

EK