Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 3 – The Dark Crystal (1982)

            Jim Henson is not a guy you think about all that often as a filmmaker but he does have a pretty substantial legacy across many mediums.  This is, after all, the guy who created a TV show in Sesame Street that teaches damn near every child how to count and his roster of Muppets have been entertaining children since the 70s.  His legacy on the big screen is still notable but perhaps a little less titanic.  A bit of a George Lucas figure, Henson produced and more or less envisioned several movies “starring” the muppets but only officially directed one: The Great Muppet Caper.  Beyond that he only has two more director credits on theatrical films: the 1986 film Labyrinth (which I’ll be getting to in a later installment) and the 1982 film The Dark Crystal, which will be the film I’m looking at today.  The Dark Crystal is a film I knew only by vague reputation.  It’s not a movie that critics generally have much to say about one way or another and while people do talk about it nostalgically it’s not generally a movie that people claim as a “favorite” that they watched a million times as a child.  In fact when people do talk about the movie they generally talk about having been disturbed by its dark nature of frightened by its content.  That is a big part of what piqued my interest about the film.  In case you haven’t noticed I generally like my family movies to be darker, at least in theory,  and I’ve long suspected The Dark Crystal was a movie that I would have liked if I had known about it when I was young.

A lot of my hope for the movie kind of got deflated pretty quickly however as the movie opened with a long exposition dump by an omniscient narrator who outlines the state of this world in the most inelegant way possible.  It was at this moment that I realized this was going to be one of these movies like Dune or Willow that Hollywood made in the wake of Star Wars which sought to take advantage of the willingness audiences apparently had to watch fantasy films but took no note of the steps that movie took to make its universe understandable and relatable.  You know, the kind of movie that the fake movie at the center of Argo probably would have ended up being like.  More than anything this reminds me of Disney’s similarly titled The Black Cauldron, which was another movie that tried to expand its brand into darker territory but found its many grandiose ideas to actually be something of a mess in terms of fantasy and world building and yet rather bland and formulaic as a narrative.

To the film’s credit, there is something pretty impressive about trying to make a movie with this tone and on this scale using only puppets.  There was some clear thought put into the film’s various creatures and the film also had some fairly impressive sets like a lab with an elaborate astronomy set-up, but there was one clear puppetry fail and it was a pretty important one: the main character.  “Jen” was supposed to be this big breakthrough of puppetry but he proved to be both indistinct and boring as a design and highly unexpressive and inhuman as an effect.  It doesn’t help that Stephen Garlick gives him a rather weak voice and that he’s a frankly rather boring and unrelatable character on the page to begin with.  In fact when the movie was rolling into its third act I found myself to be pretty actively bored by it.  Now, for all the complaining I’ve done about this movie I do want to say I didn’t hate it exactly.  Rather, I’m frustrated by the movie because it does feel like there is a good movie hidden in it somewhere that was never really allowed to emerge for the simple fact that the people making it couldn’t really see the forest for the trees and made a lot of mistakes through their lack of perspective.

To the Scorecard:

Man, I really thought this was going to be the round where gen X stepped up and started hitting back but that didn’t end up happening.  That’s too bad because this movie seems to be having a bit of a moment right now.  Netflix is apparently making a prequel series and the original film is getting a UHD release and I think Fathom is bringing it back to theaters.  Truth be told I’m not so sure Netflix should want people taking another look at the movie though because it pretty clearly does not hold up.



He’s taken an odd route to Hollywood success but the English novelist Alex Garland has somehow managed to work in movies for over fifteen years and doesn’t really have a bad movie on his resume.  Beginning with the sale of his novel “The Beach” Garland began a working relationship with Danny Boyle which led to Garland writing screenplays for the Boyle films 28 Days Later and Sunshine, which both had their flaws but which were nonetheless very solid movies and then he went out on his own and wrote the screenplays for the under-rated Never Let Me Go and Dredd but he really became a force of his own in 2015 when he stepped into the director role and made the small scale science fiction film Ex Machina.  That was a movie I was kind of lukewarm on when I saw it but which in retrospect I think I was a bit too hard on.  That was an original science fiction movie made on a mid-budget, which is a kind of movie critics get really excited for but are also often disappointed by and Ex Machina managed to deliver and even somehow managed to get a visual effects Academy award despite being made on a relatively small budget.  He’s now been allowed to make another science fiction film and this time with a bigger budget and despite being made in a major studio his new film Annihilation is just as uncompromising as Ex Machina.

Annihilation begins with the sight of some kind of object crashing to Earth and hitting some kind of lighthouse.  From there we flash forward and meet a woman named Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and military veteran whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing since going on a classified special forces mission a year prior.  That ends one day when he suddenly shows up at her door and begins behaving strangely and can’t explain where he’s been and shows signs of deteriorating health.  Later that day they’re both stopped and arrested by government agents and brought to a secret facility that sits outside a national park that has been taken over by a strange phenomenon called “The Shimmer” which has encompassed the park (which has been evacuated under pretext of a chemical spill) and seems to be expanding outward.  Kane is apparently the only person so far to have returned from The Shimmer and as such Lena convinces a lady named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to let her join the next team to enter The Shimmer in hopes of finding answers.

One of the reasons I was a little cool on Ex Machina originally was simply that I was a little tired of the whole “how human are robots” question that science fiction has been batting around for the last hundred years.  With Annihilation avoids this problem, in part because it’s a lot less cut and dry about what it’s trying to say or even what questions it’s asking in the first place.  In broad strokes it’s pretty clear what “the shimmer” is insomuch as it appears to be some sort of alien terraforming effort but the exact reasons for its creation and the full extent of what happens there is less defined.  The area is plainly reminiscent of “The Zone” from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in that it’s this seemingly earthly area where few people opt to venture because of the strange things that happen there.  Also like Tarkovsky’s film the mission that Lena and her compatriots go on seems less like an adventure and more like a grim inevitability they’re driven to by various personal demons.  Unlike Stalker though Annihilation has some more conventional genre thrills along the way.  I don’t want to give away too much of what goes on inside of “the shimmer” but the is a horror element to it including some creature effects that are somewhat reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing and some of the group dynamics as the trip into “the shimmer” reminded me a bit of The Blair Witch Project.

In short, Annihilation is quite a trip.  It’s a thoughtful science fiction movie but one with imagery and structure that make it an entertaining viewing.  The most obvious recent touchstone for the movie would likely be the 2016 film Arrival, which was probably the last intelligent science fiction movie to really catch on with the public.  Both films are about women tasked with making contact with aliens who have appeared on Earth for mysterious reasons, but Annihilation is a little more visually adventurous and a little less generous in doling out its meaning.  This is a movie that’s going to keep people guessing and theorizing for a while, maybe not as long as one of Tarkovsky’s science fiction films, but certainly longer than most of the movies that Hollywood gives us.

****1/2 out of Five

Black Panther(2/17/2018)

The weird thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the critics seem to hate the MCU as an enterprise and yet they seem to like every individual film in the MCU and whenever one comes out they seem to forget that they’ve liked every individual film.  Like, when Thor: Ragnarok came out last year the critics were all saying “oh my god, they really let Taika Waititi inject his signature humor into this, it’s so much different than those other Marvel movies.”  Of course four months earlier they were saying “oh my god, they really managed to turn Spider-Man: Homecoming into a down to earth high school movie, it’s so much different than those other Marvel movies.” And the year before that the critics were saing “oh my god, they really managed to turn Doctor Strange into a crazy acid trip, it’s so much different than those other Marvel movies.”  So on and so forth.  Critics also have a history of going overboard with their praise whenever a film seems to be an advance in representation in Hollywood cinema, something which led a lot of critics to really lose their minds when presented with good but not truly extraordinary movies like Wonder Woman, Bridesmaids, and The Big Sick.  As such I was pretty cautious when the raves and hype for the newest Marvel film Black Panther started rolling in as I feel a bit like I’ve been cried wolf to before when it comes to movies like this.

The action in Black Panther picks up about a week after the events of Captain America: Civil War, the movie which introduced the character.  With his father dead the time is now for young Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to be officially crowned as the king of Wakanda.  Wakanda is a fictional African country built on top of a reserve of a material called vibranium, a metal so useful and powerful that it trumps all the guns, germs, and steel that have allowed colonial powers to dominate other African countries for centuries.  They’ve used that technology to build some kind of cloaking device that hides their futuristic capital city and have generally hidden their incredible technology for centuries.  Shortly after his coronation T’Challa gets intel that an enemy of the Wakandans named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) is going to be in South Korea selling a stolen vibranium artifact.  T’Challa promises his confidant W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) that he will kill or capture Klaue, retrieves his new suit from his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and heads to Korea with his to top agents Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira).  Once there he finds an undercover CIA agent named Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) also on the hunt for Klaue, but what neither of them know is that Klaue is now in league with a man named Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who has grand plans that could have grave consequences for Wakanda.

Aside from the fact that the character was introduced in a previous film (a fact that would not be terribly apparent to people just jumping in here) Black Panther feels mostly independent from the wider world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and outside of a couple of technical elements it does feel somewhat distinct from that Marvel house-style.  The biggest thing that sets this apart is its setting in Wakanda, which is quite the creation.  It takes a few leaps of logic to buy that this civilization could completely hide itself for so many centuries (how long have they had that cloaking device?) and the notion that they spent all these years living in peace and harmony with their neighbors despite having overwhelming advantages over them goes a bit contrary to human nature, especially given that they apparently select their rulers through trial by combat.  Still, once you get past that this is a really interesting place to be setting a movie.  We’ve seen plenty of science fiction versions of European and Asian cities but we’ve basically never seen a vision of a technologically advanced Africa brought to the screen with anywhere near this kind of budget or scope and it gives a very interesting flavor to the whole movie.  We see things that would be neat sci-fi tech in any context like a line of soldiers with force field shields and make them that much more unique by having them be tied to said soldiers’ African garb for example.

If Black Panther has a real problem it might be that it’s a touch over-crowded with a large cast of supporting characters who almost begin to overshadow the title character in his own film.  For instance, the characters of Nakia and Okoye feel a touch redundant, both basically just act as glorified sidekicks and one or the other likely would have been sufficient.  Martin Freeman’s Everett K. Ross is also a somewhat interesting presence in the movie but is also largely story irrelevant outside of his role as an outsider who can ask questions on behalf of the audience which probably didn’t need extra explaining.  The Forest Whitaker and/or the Angela Bassett character also probably could have cut down as we probably only really needed one tribal elder character to explain some of the backstory.  It gets to the point where, in the film’s finale, we get three different action scenes being intercut and the one where our hero is fighting the main villain is plainly the least interesting of the three.  Still there are a lot of side characters here who do work quite well.  I liked Letitia Wright a lot as T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri who acts as a sort of Q figure giving gadgets to our hero and I particularly liked the film’s villain The Killmonger.  Michael B. Jordan isn’t necessarily the most physically intimidating villain Marvel has ever put forward what with his youthful demeanor and wacky Jaden Smith haircut, but he has motivations that generally make sense and you can divine a bit or a Trump allegory in the way he uses holes in the Wakandan succession laws to become a dangerous person in power.

On a pure filmmaking standpoint Black Panter is perhaps a bit of a step backwards for Ryan Coogler.  There are a couple of cool action scenes here, especially a car chase around the film’s midpoint but these scenes are a bit over-edited and there are a couple of moments of questionable CGI (the rhinos were a bit much).  I found the boxing scenes in Creed to better rendered in their simplicity, but perhaps that’s inherent to making big action scenes in Marvel movies.  I’m not exactly sure where I’d rank the movie within the annals of the MCU, especially given that Marvel has been varying things up lately and these comparisons have become a bit harder to make.  Visually it’s pretty high up there but maybe not as high up there as Doctor Strange, as a thriller narrative it’s also up there but maybe not as high as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and in terms of action it’s fairly high up there but maybe not as high as The Avengers.  Still there is an x-factor here that cannot be ignored; we simply haven’t seen an African science fiction movie like this before and that isn’t something to be ignored.  That’s something that sets it apart from last year’s “glass ceiling breaking” superhero movie Wonder Woman, which really didn’t do anywhere near as much in its imagining of a matriarchal society.  I’m only really able to ride the hype train on this thing so far, at the end of the day it’s a bit messy, but the things it does right it does very right.

**** out of Five

The Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts – 2017(2/18/2018)

Last year, for the first time, I went to see a screening of the five live action films nominated for the Academy Award that year.  A company called ShortsTV (formerly known as ShortsHD) has been putting these shorts into theaters every year for a while but that was the first time I went and I thought it was a moderately rewarding experience.  I don’t know that I want to make it an annual tradition but clearly I found it worthwhile enough to come again this year.  This roster of shorts was in many ways different from last year’s.  For one thing these shorts are a bit shorter, with all but one being around twenty minutes long where last year most were pushing the thirty minute mark.  These films also hued closer to the Anglosphere with four of the five nominated films being in English compared to last year’s set where all five of the films were from continental Europe.  Those films also often tended to be made by older filmmakers whereas three of the nominees this year appear to have started out as student films which rose above what is normally expected from such films.

Please note that when talking about movies with running times like this even talking about small plot points can be bigger spoilers than they would be when talking about longer works, so if you’re interested in actually watching these maybe be careful about reading.


DeKalb Elementary

The first documentary in ShortsTV’s presentation is something of a topical standout as it deals with the issue of school shootings.  Inspired by an actual incident which happened in Atlanta (at a school called McNair Discovery Academy) the film shows a man with clear mental health issues walk into a school office and pull out an assault rifle.  From there we get a tense standoff as the man doesn’t simply proceed to open fire and the secretary begins to try talking him down.  Actress Tarra Riggs does a great job of bringing this secretary to life and making her sensitive courage believable and Bo Mitchell is also decent as the disturbed young man causing all the trouble.  The film was directed by a guy named Reed Van Dyke as his final thesis film while getting his MFA in film directing from UCLA and it does a good job of showing his skill at building tension and in painting portraits of characters with minimal exposition.  I’m not sure the film really has all that much to say about the topic of school shootings as this incident was not terribly representative of most active shooters (most of whom are not going to be made to stop with any amount of love and understanding) but it does remain a pretty solid portrait of a small act of heroism and is also notably the only of the four non-comedic shorts here that doesn’t bog itself down in title cards at the end.

My Grade: B+

Its Oscar Chances: It’s most likely the frontrunner.  The film’s humanism combined with its tense nature will jump out to most voters immediately.  If it has any weakness it’s that it basically takes place in real time and doesn’t need to contend with the challenges of its short format the way some of the other films do.  That said, the fact that the Parkland shooting in Florida is in the news leading up to the voting period can only help this


The Silent Child

The second film on this docket is a film from the UK called The Silent Child focuses on issues of deafness and disability.  The film was not directed by a film student but buy a guy named Chris Overton, who appears to primarily be an actor rather than a director and has worked primarily in British television, and it was written by a woman named Rachel Shenton who was inspired to write it by the life of her deaf father.  The film looks at a teacher for the deaf who is hired to tutor a young deaf child before she goes to school, but it quickly becomes clear that her parents are not going to be overly amenable to some of these lessons.  This is the only of the five shorts here that is set over the course of months rather than days or minutes, and probably tells the most complete story of all of them.  In terms of pure storytelling I’d say that it’s the best one here but it does suffer a bit from being a bit didactic.  The family holding their deaf daughter back here can’t simply be slow to understand what’s best for their daughter, they also need to be yuppie assholes who cheat on each other and actively neglect their child and the teacher can’t simply be someone who understands these issues but must also be a saint-like tutor who seems to straight-up love this kid more than her parents.  Twenty minutes isn’t a long time but it is enough time to draw lines a little more realistically than that and the PSA like text that fills the screen at the end doesn’t help matters.

My Grade: B-

Its Oscar Chances: Were it not for DeKalb Elementary I’d probably say this had the best shot.  There’s kind of a history of movies about kids doing well in this category and the way it builds empathy is clearly impressive.  Voters looking for something a little bit lighter but not too light would probably go for this one.


My Nephew Emmett

The one short this year that I’d really call a big of a misfire is this one, which recreates the last day in the life of Emmett Till from the perspective of his uncle Mose Wright.  This short, directed by NYU grad Kevin Wilson Jr, in some ways falls into the same trap as Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit in that it seems content to simply show an unfortunate incident in America’s racial history, more or less without comment beyond trying to put you in the middle of the victim’s terror.  Bigelow’s movie, however, was at least bringing attention to a moment that has been rather under-reported while this one is simply recounting a story that pretty much any remotely well educated person should be fairly familiar with.  The decision to tell the story from the uncle’s perspective, while useful in some ways, doesn’t exactly shine a particularly new light on the story either and we don’t get to know much about him outside of a surface level overview.  That said the kidnapping scene is really tense and disturbing and in some ways that does give the exercise some value.

My Grade: C-

Its Oscar Chances: Probably low.  The film did win a Student Academy Award, which would seem to be a good sign, but DeKalb Elementary pretty clearly beats it as its own game of “suspenseful recreation of real events” and there are also plenty of other choices for those looking to reward movies about marginalized people.


The Eleven O’Clock

The fourth film here is in some ways the odd one out, firstly because it’s the only comedy here and secondly because it’s the shortest of the shorts, coming in at just 13 minutes.  The film was made by an Australian named Derin Seale, who is the son of the legendary cinematographer Jon Seale (of Mad Max: Fury Road fame).  This connection led him to get second unit work on Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain but he hardly has any other credits at all on IMDB so I’m guessing a lot of his work has been in the field of commercials or music videos.  This short looks at a two guys who are both claiming to be a psychiatrist who believes the other is a patient has a delusional belief that he’s the psychiatrist (this confusion is aided by the normal receptionist being gone that day) and a lot of “who’s on first” style confusion entails.   The big weakness of this is that, at the end of the day, it feels less like a film and more like a segment from a sketch comedy show.  In fact the basic concept appears to have been lifted from a 90s British sketch show called “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” but this version is sped up a lot and generally done with a bigger budget and has more going on.  It’s hard to dislike this short but it’s also hard to really get excited about it after its done.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances:  Low.  The film did win at the Australian Academy Awards (AACTA), but I’m not sure how much competition it had there.  It’s always possible that the simple fact that this is an orange in a basket of apples will appear to a certain voter block but otherwise I’m not seeing a whole lot of reasons to vote for it.  The people dedicated enough to look into the short categories on their Oscar ballots seem like they’d be the types to take themselves a little more seriously than this.


Watu Wote (All of Us)

The final film in this program is the only of the five not in English and while it was made by German film students from the Hamburg Media School it set on the Kenya/Somali border and is in the Swahili and Somalian languages.  This border is apparently a very tense location with a great deal of conflict because of terrorist attacks by Al-Shabaab on Christian Kenyans and resulting animosity directed back on innocent Muslims by Christians as a result.  Specifically the film focuses on a Christian woman as she takes a bus trip through dangerous territory and clearly has a lot of hostility towards the Muslims on the bus.  It doesn’t take a lot of predictive powers to guess what happens to this bus, especially after the buses police escort fails to show up, and it also isn’t hard to guess what lesson this Christian woman will learn over the course of this experience.  The film’s rather banal moral that we all bleed when pricked is what holds the film back, but on the positive side it probably best production values of the five films here and an attack set-piece late in the film is one of the best moments of pure cinema across the five films.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances: Not great.  I guess this could be seen as a dark horse of sorts given its clear production value and relevance to modern times, but this just isn’t the most memorable short here and it’s also likely that the voters are going to be more interested in supporting home grown talent.


Final Thoughts

All in all I think this roster of shorts is probably a little weaker than last year’s although it’s not a dramatic drop-off.  DeKalb Elementary is clearly the standout although it didn’t necessarily overwhelm me with greatness, although it might have stood out to me more if it had played last instead of first.  I’m still pretty inexperienced when it comes to modern short films in general so I’m really not sure how representative these are of short films in general or if there’s better work out there but so far after two years of watching Oscar nominated live action shorts I’m getting the impression that they tend to sit in this kind of B/B- range.

Home Video Round-Up: 2/20/2018

Faces Places (2/10/2018)

Agnès Varda and the increasingly reclusive Jean-Luc Godard are among the last leaders of the legendary French New Wave still standing and it’s admirable that both still seem to be making movies.  Varda’s latest is a documentary of sorts, albeit not a traditional verite one, in which she is more or less the subject.  In the film Varda and a modern artist who goes by the name JR(who shares co-director credit) travel into the French countryside meeting people and taking pictures that are pasted onto surfaces as posters in interesting ways, which seems to be JR’s medium of choice.  These poster projects are neat and have a certain element of Banksy style street art but if the movie only existed to depict this little art project it would be a rather slight work. Instead I think this is primarily a movie about Varda herself and what light is shed by her friendship and collaboration with this younger artist who in many ways seems to have styled himself after the mannerisms of the generation of artists she came from.  All of this was almost certainly intentional and I suspect that a lot of the framing here was staged, which is part of why I hesitate to even call it a documentary really, but hanging out with these people is quite pleasant and the film ends up being a very fascinating watch.

**** out of Five

Nocturama (2/10/2018)

This controversial French thriller begins with a group of young people carrying out a series of terrorist attacks and then meeting up in a department store after hours to regroup and wait out the law.  The terrorists in question are young, multi-racial, and do not appear to be driven by Islamic extremism. They appear to be some sort of anarchist collective or environmentalists or something but the film goes out of its way to make unclear what their motives are for these actions or what they thought they would accomplish by carrying them out.  This was clearly a deliberate choice but I’m not sure what it was supposed to accomplish as it becomes incredibly difficult to understand any of these people without some insight into their motivations and without that this stops being any kind of useful character study and resigns itself to being a slick procedural.  Director Bertrand Bonello shoots the film with clear efficiency and there is excitement to seeing these people carry out their plans, in part because it isn’t exactly clear what they’re up to at first and there’s also a certain interest in seeing them hang out afterward though the absence of motivation does start to hurt the film in those segments as well.  The film walks the walk of a great movie and it is worth watching but its script’s decision to avoid explanation ultimately lets it down.

***1/2 out of Five

Loving Vincent (2/15/2018)

Loving Vincent is a Polish/English co-production about the life of Vincent Van Gogh told through a unique animation style.  The film was constructed by filming actors in front of green screens and then animating over them, but rather than using traditional cartoon style animation the film animates using oil painting in Van Gogh’s signature style by hand.  I repeat, this is an animated movie done in oil paint.  That technical/visual accomplishment is amazing and makes the movie worth seeing, unfortunately the movie itself doesn’t really live up to its style.   The film takes something of a Citizen Kane approach of investigating a life through flashbacks as someone investigates him after his death which isn’t a terrible idea but the movie doesn’t do much to really invest the audience in the investigator or any of the side characters being interviewed.  The actors her also feel a bit “central casting” and I feel like the movie would have been elevated if it had the budget to bring in a couple of more noteworthy actors.  Were it not for the animation style this would be little more than the type of movie they show to tour groups at museums, but again, that animation style is really interesting so I can’t mind too much.

***1/2 out of Five

Unrest (2/19/2018)

When you watch a lot of documentaries you come to learn about a lot of issues and movements you otherwise would have been oblivious to.  One such issue was the way the medical establishment treats sufferers of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, otherwise known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  This disease is controversial within the medical establishment, with many suggesting that it is likely psychosomatic.  The film is clearly opposed to such skepticism in no small part because it was directed by someone who suffers from the ailment.  That director, Jennifer Brea, was struck down and bedridden by what is believed to be ME/CFS and actually made most of the movie via interviews over skype and with footage taken as she begins reacting to the ailment.  The film looks a bit at the history of ME/CFS in medicine and profiles a handful of other sufferers around the world as well as the run-up to a large scale day of protest that apparently happened (I don’t think it got much press).  Part of the argument here is that the affliction is simply so neglected by the scientific establishment that there’s really not enough research to know one way or another what is at the root of the disease and that a lot more funding needs to go into the field.  That having been said, Brea has obvious reason to be biased in this and I did get the feeling throughout that we were only getting one side of this debate and that there must be more to the scientific consensus than what we’re being shown.

*** out of Five

Last Man in Aleppo (2/20/2018)

I’ve seen a decent number of documentaries set in war zones, and I’ve got to say they aren’t always as exciting as you might expect.  The people in them tend to be too busy trying to survive to really take on much of a character arc and when the action pops off it’s rarely as compelling as you’d thing, in part because for some reason the camera people tend not to be very careful with their framings while explosions are going off around them and bullets are whizzing past.  This documentary has some of those same problems as it looks at what life is like in Aleppo during the ongoing civil war (spoiler: it’s not a very nice place).  The film is, more specifically about a group called “The White Helmets” who are civilians who have volunteered to act as first responders saving civilians caught in bombing runs.  Last year’s Oscar winning Documentary short subject The White Helmets gave a pretty good overview of this group for those interested, this documentary (which is not affiliated with the other one) was made by locals and gives an expanded look at this group and paints more of a picture of their day to day lives.  It’s hard to fault the movie too much, it is being made by people who are risking their lives after all and it is certainly of some worth but I didn’t personally connect with it too much.

**1/2 out of Five

Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 2 – The Last Starfighter (1984)

“I was born in 2025, but I wish I’d grown up in the 1980s, like all my heroes” is the first line of the first teaser trailer for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming movie Ready Player One, a movie (and book) which in many ways seems like the apotheosis of the kind of questionable 80s nostalgia I’m examining in this series.  The 2045 that that movie is set in does seem vaguely dystopic, but I can say with reasonable confidence that the 1980s are not something he should be aspiring to.  It was a decade of constant Cold War paranoia, widespread intolerance, an AIDS epidemic, and most pertinently it was a time when American culture was incredibly dumbed down.  Of course you won’t find too many traces of those social ills in the popular cinema of the 80s, which is a big part of why this character presumably thinks it would be fun to live in an era when unions were quashed and wearing Members Only Jackets was considered a good idea.  On top of that, this guy would also come to learn that not all of the movies from that decade were as fun as he seems to think because for every Star Wars there were several shoddily made Star Wars ripoffs and today I’ll be looking at one of the more famous of these, a goofy piece of childhood wish-fulfilment called The Last Starfighter.

Of course the phrase “Ready Player One” comes from the world of arcade machines, a form of entertainment that was booming in the 80s after Pac Man Fever sweapt the nation and Hollywood seemed to be particularly interested in tapping into the trend through gaming adjacent science fiction.  The most notable of these attempts was almost certainly the 1982 film Tron but a close second was probably The Last Starfighter, about a young man who is asked to take part in an intergalactic war because he got the high score in a video game placed on earth by an alien recruiter looking for people with a knack for the kind of aerial dogfighting that the game mimics.  That such video game skill would prove to have actual value in real life like that and bring the reward of an adventure would seem to be a kid’s greatest fantasy and the movie is pretty shameless in the way it presents this.  In fact the movie isn’t content to make this dude a mere soldier in this war, it goes so far to have him face down the entire enemy fleet alone at the end and save the day almost single-handedly.  I’m not exactly sure when it’s appropriate to invoke the phrase “Mary Sue” but I think it’s pretty safe to do it here.

The one thing keeping this from being a total power fantasy is the extent to which its protagonist is reluctant at every step of becoming this “chosen one” hero figure.   I was actually pretty surprised that the film’s protagonist was as old as he was given that the film is pretty clearly trying to indulge a dream that only children had in the early 80s.  The protagonist is in fact in his late teens and is played by a nobody named Lance Guest who is pretty annoying here and spends most of the film whining about getting looped into this adventure.  Guest also has something of a double role in the film and is actually better in the second role.  The film has a b-plot of sorts where Guest plays a robot who takes the protagonist’s place on Earth while he’s up in space having an adventure.  It’s a detail that doesn’t really add a whole lot to the A-plot and seems like it was mostly added to pad out the run time, but in some ways this material does work better than the space opera stuff in the film which really hasn’t stood the test of time.

Rather than using the special effects techniques that looked great in Star Wars this movie, made the year before that Dire Straits “Money For Nothing” video, decided that extensive use of CGI technology was the way to go and it looks about as laughable as you’d expect.  The more practically constructed scene on the interior of the ship hold up a little better, at least on a technical level, but the universe of the film doesn’t seem to have been terribly well thought through or interesting and the movie doesn’t really do enough to get the audience invested in this galactic civil war. Director Nick Castle was a friend of John Carpenter who was actually cast as Michael Myers in the original Halloween, a job he was given basically so he’d have an excuse to hang around the set and watch Carpenter while he worked.  He also co-wrote Escape from New York and has a “story by” credit on Hook but as a director this was probably his most notable work.  He spent most of the 90s making bad commercial comedies like Dennis the Menace and Major Payne and direct to video crap in the 2000s before basically retiring, though there are some reports that despite being 70 years old he will be reprising his role as Michael Myers in the upcoming Halloween reboot… don’t know how that’s going to work.  Anyway, Castle does have a degree of professionalism and seems to have a moderately decent budget to work with, which elevates things a little.  This is a movie that easily could have descended into MST3K levels of B-movie schlock and it does avoid that fate and provides some moderate entertainment value

To the Scorecard:

This movie is pretty bad.  I don’t want to completely trash it because I do think some elements of it probably did work better back in the 80s but its general second-rate nature was probably apparent from the beginning.  Truth be told this movie was probably destined to be a bit outclassed here as, more so than a some of the movies here, I think this movie’s fans are a bit more aware of its shortcomings.  Still, it is a much referenced movie of the era that did not put up much of a fight so another round goes to the skeptic.