Entertainment

You’ve come to Nottingham once too often…

Errol Flynn was born today in 1909. After a life of hard, hard living, he died at age 50. Before the end, he made many movies. A lot of them are among my all-time favorites, including The Adventures of Robin Hood, the inspiration for the name of this blog.

In honor of Flynn’s day of birth, here’s the great sword fight scene between Robin and Sir Guy, played by the great Basil Rathbone, who was a decorated soldier in World War I.

There is a really blatant goof in this scene. When Sir Guy falls down the stairway, his sword goes flying out in front of him. But when Robin jumps down, the sword is at his feet and he gallantly flips it back to Sir Guy.

Passengers, a classic love story disguised as science fiction

Usually when I write about science fiction movies on this site, it is to complain about how bad they are. Today will be different. Today I am going to rave about Passengers, starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. While this film is categorized as science fiction, it is really a classic love story. The futuristic setting is a utility to put the two main characters in the situation that leads to the decisions they make. Which is good, because the science isn’t great — though not bad enough that I found myself interrupting my enjoyment of the film to shout, “Hey, that could never happen,” though, in fact, much of it couldn’t. But that’s beside the point.

I don’t want to reveal any spoilers. Let me just say that the situation Pratt’s character finds himself in is heartbreaking and though he makes an awful decision, I could sympathize with him. And Lawrence is a marvel. She is easily one of the top actors on screen today — maybe ever. The range of emotions her character navigates is breathtaking and she is never anything but completely honest and real. Pratt is very good too, and very likable. For most of the film, it is just the two of them, along with Michael Sheen as a sort of Wilson the volleyball from Castaway.

I watched the film on DVD on Saturday, while Amy was at work. I liked it so much that I knew Amy would like it too, so we watched it together Sunday. I enjoyed it even more the second time through.

So, don’t rent Passengers because you want to see a sci fi classic. Rent to to watch two fine and likable actors in a terrific love story filled with lots of marvels and a few tense thrills.

Star Trek Beyond leaves the Enterprise in smoldering ruins

The Enterprise is left a smoldering ruin in the first 20 minutes of Star Trek Beyond... and so is the Star Trek franchise.

The Enterprise is left a smoldering ruin in the first 20 minutes of Star Trek Beyond… and so is the Star Trek franchise.

Amy and I watched the latest Star Trek film tonight on disk from Netflix. I can say that this is easily the worst Star Trek film ever. It may be one of the worst big budget films ever. That the Enterprise is completely destroyed in the first 20 minutes serves as the perfect metaphor for what J.J. Abrams is doing to this franchise: turning it into smoking ruins. Abrams directed and wrote (I think) the first two of the reboot films, and executive produced this one. The first film was good. The actors really pulled off the difficult task of stepping into the roles of such iconic characters. Abrams appeared to understand that Star Trek is first and foremost about those characters and their relationships. The second film continued to honor the characters, but it lost its footing with an implausible story and a really, really bad grasp of physics. But it is Citizen Kane compared with this new film, which fails in every area: Ridiculous plot. Absurd “science.” Plot written to serve the special effects. Special effects that aren’t very special (how can they be when the film is wall to wall effects?). And, worst of all, the actors begin to look like frauds pretending to be Spock, Kirk, Bones, Scotty, because the writers just don’t care about them as characters any more.

Here are some random gripes about this travesty:

  • The filmmakers rush from one outlandish and impossible stunt to another, conjuring up whatever pseudo-science they need to explain why they can do this, usually with a quick one-sentence explanation from Scotty. “He’s using the gravity slip stream…”
  • How the villain and his crew end up doing what they are doing makes no sense whatsoever. How they get the amazing technology to destroy star ships when they are stranded on a planet is gasp inducing, and not in a good way. That they even know about a super weapon that comes into possession of the Enterprise is unlikely at best. Why the villain keeps the crew of the Enterprise alive, when he’s intended to destroy millions of people is inexplicable, except to the extent that the writers needed them alive so Kirk, et. al. can rescue them.
  • How is it that the Enterprise is on a five-year mission to explore unknown space, but there is a giant Federation space station with millions of people on it at what they describe as the edge of the frontier?
  • It takes the crew longer to fly from one edge of this space station to the center than it did to fly from a distant planet within a nebula.
  • Seeing that nostalgic music worked for Guardians of the Galaxy, the filmmakers boldly incorporate that idea into this story. But the music sucks.
  • The writers dutifully make Scotty and Bones say things that Scotty and Bones are known for saying… i.e. “I’m a doctor not a…” and “Captain, I’m giving her all she’s got…” (or something close). But that’s no substitute for actually making these living, breathing characters.
  • Why there is a vintage motorcycle onboard a deep space, early star ship that has crash landed on the planet on which Kirk and crew are stranded is a head scratcher, but you know immediately that Kirk is going to ride it at some point. And when he did, I just felt another round of “lets create the stunts first, then we can shove a plot in there to fill in the cracks.”

I love Star Trek and these characters, but someone has got to rescue them from J. J. Abrams. Steven Spielberg, where are you when we need you?

Errol Flynn — the only true Robin Hood — was born today in 1909

errol-flynn-robin-hood-the-adventures-of-robin-hood

Welcome to Sherwood, my lady.

That’s just one of the famous lines from The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn, who was born today in 1909 in Hobart, Tasmania. Few actors could buckle a swash like Flynn. Though hard living in real life killed hill at age 50.

Since I took the name of the blog from that famous line, I’ll wish Errol Flynn a happy birthday in that Sherwood Forest in the sky.

The Revenant – my reactions

DiCaprio in The Revenant

[Revised version.]

I finally got to see The Revenant this weekend on a DVD disk from Netflix. There is much to admire about this movie. Great performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. Breathtaking imagery. And the scene in which DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, is mauled by a grizzly bear is stunning filmmaking.

SPOILERS AHEAD

All and all I found The Revenant compelling. But in the end I was disappointed. The problem is my familiarity with the true story of Hugh Glass, epic without the embellishments layered on by the film.  (For a reasonable recounting of the differences between the historical record and the film version of Hugh Glass’s story, see here.)

The film adds elements that I found distracting and even annoying. The emotional center of the film, the murder of Glass’s Pawnee wife by American soldiers and the subsequent murder of his son by one of his companions, is totally fabricated (there is no evidence he had a wife or that, if he did, she was killed in a raid; there is no record of his having a son, and even if he did have one, there is no way he would have been old enough to join in a trapping excursion). Knowing this as I watched the movie made me feel manipulated by the filmmakers. The real Hugh Glass crawled 200 miles, not to mete out noble justice for the death of his son, but simply to survive. Perhaps wanting vengeance for being abandoned by his companions fueled his desire to live, but in the end he never did kill anyone over his abandonment. He just returned to trapping until he was killed by Indians ten years later, in 1833.

There are two story threads involving a party of villainous French-Canadian trappers, and a noble band of Arikara Indians trying to rescue the kidnapped daughter of one of its own. These two strands are improbably woven into Glass’s story — making the vast wilderness of the American west seem a very crowded place.

I also found it gratuitous that the leader of the Arikaras makes a short speech about how the white man has stolen everything from them. Remember, this story takes place in 1823, before there has been much incursion by whites into far west. I doubt very much that the Arikaras or any other western tribes felt that everything had been stolen from them by the white man, yet. They surely did justifiably come to feel that way but that would not be for another 40 years or more.

Had this story been set later in the 19th century and not involved real-life, historical people, I would have appreciated it more. It is a good movie, but falls far short of the best mountain man film of all time, Jeremiah Johnson. That’s another movie based on a book, which is inspired by a true story. But both the novelist (Vardis Fisher) and the filmmaker (the great Sydney Pollack) use fictional characters, only taking the true story of Liver-Eating Johnson as a starting point.

Embellishments are necessary in telling Glass’s story, I suppose. Watching a man crawl 200 miles, no matter how heroic, would be a bore. But this film does not honor Hugh Glass, because it does not trust that his real story is worth telling. Instead it wraps Glass in a bearskin of supernaturalism, as visions of his fictional wife keep appearing to him until the ultimate villain in the story is dead. Then Hugh Glass stops fighting death and embraces it. The film ends in blackness as we hear Hugh Glass take his final breath.

The real Hugh Glass would have fought to the bitter end.

And a final thought: The wild west of the mountain man was violent and dangerous. But it was also a time and place of fabulous adventures. Mountain men, even those who made some money from their efforts, kept returning to the trade, drawn by the freedom of living among the fabulous beauty of the Rocky Mountains. The Revenant fails to acknowledge this, painting instead a bleak and miserable portrait of these men.

The sun never shines throughout the entire film.

 

 

The Martian Rocks

The Martian image

[Updated – see second paragraph]

Amy and I joined my good friend Lou this weekend to see The Martian. This isn’t a review. Let me just say it is a wonderful movie, which I enjoyed greatly.

What this post is about is a quick comparison between The Martian and last year’s science fiction film Interstellar. I’ve already written about my disappointment with that film. If anything, seeing The Martian made my contempt for Interstellar even deeper. Let’s just start with the fact that The Martian was lightyears ahead of Interstellar in scientific plausibility. [Update: Even rocket scientists agree — see here.] I’m not a physicist, so my opinion on this matter may not hold as much water as some others, but I rarely had one of those “yeah, right” moments viewing The Martian, whereas I had a large box of Milk Duds worth of scoffs at the so-called science in Interstellar.

Both movies are ultimately about the same thing: Measuring the size of the human heart on the instrument of the universe. Interstellar warped logic and reason, generating absurd paranormal babble in order to convince us of the power of our will to love and live and thrive. In that process it actually undermined its own message: The filmmakers weren’t even smart enough or ambitious enough to tell this story and stick to something that might actually happen. That’s okay in a fantasy film. It isn’t in a movie that claims to be grounded in science. The resolution to Interstellar was cloaked in some kind of quantum physics mysticism that was, frankly, laughable.

Interstellar also gave us a dead Earth, ruined by humans (apparently, though what has caused the planet to die is never really discussed). The plot is sterile and cynical: Mankind’s fate rests in the hands of one man.

In contrast, The Martian is the story of the world pulling together to save the life of just one man stranded on a distant planet. The heroes are scientists and astronauts and even political bureaucrats desperately trying to do something remarkable. They are smart, resourceful people, people who actually understand science and how the universe really works. Their success is inspiring exactly because it isn’t fabulous or fantastical. It is simply possible (only, of course, if we stop eschewing science in favor of bullshit mysticism) and that’s what makes it inspiring.

The short of it is this: The Martian is the anti-Interstellar.

Interesting side note: Both films feature Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, though The Martian uses the two of them much more satisfactorily.

My (disappointed) review of Interstellar

Interstellar image2

So I received Interstellar on DVD from Netflix the other day. I was anticipating this movie, as the hype around it made it sound like a smart science fiction thriller based in realistic science. Sadly, it turned out to be neither smart nor realistic.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

The first third of the film seemed very promising as we delved into the life of farmer/engineer/pilot Matthew McConaughey (known only as Cooper) and his family on a dying earth that has lost billions of people to some epidemic or other catastrophe that I was unclear about. I was willing to overlook some of the obvious absurdities (for example, how people of the world could exist only on corn, and how NASA could keep a secret facility that obviously cost a lot of money to operate and consumed a lot of natural resources). The extra-terrestrial communication for Cooper’s daughter, Murph, was interesting, if somewhat familiar in a Close-Encounters-of-the-Third-Kind-way. I was willing to buy the whole plan A, plan B approach to saving mankind, even if plan A seemed well beyond any technology that could be available on an earth so crippled.

Cooper is selected out of the blue to pilot the last desperate space mission to save humanity. He is supposed to travel through a wormhole to another galaxy, where 12 earlier NASA missions had gone, each with a single individual, looking for a new planet for humans to inhabit. Going with him are three crew members, the important one being Brand, played by Anne Hathaway. You know the two of them are going to fall for each other, although I will give the film credit for taking us on a big detour before we reach that conclusion. The other two crew members are hardly worth describing, except to say that if this were an episode of Star Trek, they’d both be wearing red shirts.

I guess I should add that there is a fifth crew member, TARS, just about the weirdest robot I’ve ever seen in science fiction. It made the robot in Lost In Space seem downright pedestrian. He (I call it “he” because it is voiced by Bill Irwin) ends up playing a far more important role in the story than half the crew. I could not figure out exactly how TARS and the other robot in the story, CASE, actually operated. They seem to be able to pull their limbs apart in whatever way is necessary to do whatever they need to. They are smart, too, which of course begs the question of why NASA needs human astronauts, who require lots of extra equipment, including deep-sleeping vats, to cover the vast distances, when they probably could have launched three times as many probes each piloted by a single robot. But then there wouldn’t be THE story.

Anyway, I was still on board Interstellar even as they passed through the wormhole, but from here on the film really jumps the shark. The physics becomes as warped as the space-time of the wormhole. First of all, it takes them two years to go from Earth to Saturn, but on the other side of the wormhole it seems to take them no time at all to travel to a planet that happens to be orbiting a black hole. It is revealed that the giant gravity well that engulfs this planet will slow down the astronauts time due to the laws of relativity, so that for every hour they spend on this planet, seven years will pass on earth. For Cooper, who intends to return home to his children, this is an excruciating problem. But they decide that they can do what they need to do in an hour, and are willing for seven years to pass. Of course, things don’t go as they plan, first red shirt dies and three hours pass, so that by the time they have returned to the larger space ship, where they left the other red shirt, 23 years has passed.

Interstellar image

While they’ve been away, messages from earth have snuck through the wormhole, so Cooper can see his children aging before his eyes as they send videos his way (for some reason, Cooper can’t send replies). Now Murph, Cooper’s daughter who had been receiving messages from beyond, has grown up to become Jessica Chastain and is working with Brand’s father (played by Michael Caine), a noted physicist and apparently the leader of the NASA facility. All along the action has been jumping back and forth between the astronauts and the people back home on earth, but now that hip hopping becomes more frenetic. We learn that the big scientific breakthrough that would help the earthlings launch their mammoth space ark, which Michael Caine had promised Cooper he would crack before Cooper returned from his mission, was always hopeless. This breakthrough required data from inside a black hole, and, of course that was impossible to get.

But wait! Cooper is nearby a black hole. At this point, of course, the big reveal that comes at the end of the film becomes obvious. And it just seems like the remainder of the movie is a slog to get to that point — and we’re still only about two-thirds of the way through.

There’s no need to rehash the rest of the film but I need to get a few more complaints off my chest:

  • I had no idea what was going on with the Matt Damon character. His motivation and what he was hoping to accomplish was completely murky to me. It seemed stuck into the story just to make the final desperate gambit necessary.
  • Somehow Cooper manages to enter a black hole without being torn apart, experiences some weird shit, does what we know by now he is going to do, then ends up in a bed back on the other side of the wormhole. If whatever force had the means to do all that (and by then we’re told what that force is), then why all the Rube-Goldberg nonsense? Beings with the knowledge and power to pull off all this space-time mumbo jumbo should be able to fashion a simpler resolution to the problem.
  • An aged Murph spends two years in deep sleep traveling to the Saturn space station to see Cooper. All this is kind of murky as well, because there’s no indication that two years have passed since Cooper awakens. He walks into the crowded room for the reunion with his elderly daughter, having not aged much. She hasn’t spoken to him in 110 years or something like that, yet she knows he’s in love with Anne Hathaway (who is on the other side of the wormhole caring for a bunch of embryos, or something) and tells him to go to her. Which, of course, he does.

If you want a more knowledgable and thorough critique of the science of interstellar, check out this article. There are a lot of others.

Beyond the laughable science, the film has other flaws. It starts out as hard science fiction, then descends into sappy, metaphysical drivel. And, maybe worst of all, earth is dying, but at no time does a character lament how human beings have brought this devastation on themselves, other than early on when a school teacher remarks that the history textbook they use has been updated to report that the Apollo moon landings were clever hoaxes created to trick the Russians into a space race that doomed communism.

As I said, pretty disappointing stuff. There is the making of a good film here. Solid acting, decent special effects (though not world class, if you ask me). And some interesting concepts. But the writer and director, Christopher Nolan, packs too much silliness into the story and loses his way. It’s too bad, because I’m still awaiting the definitive Hollywood science fiction movie. And waiting.

Rest in peace, James Garner

Jim Rockford

I am very sorry to hear of the death of the great actor James Garner.

So who didn’t like to watch James Garner work on screen? The man seemed so at ease, so self assured, even when he was playing characters in audacious predicaments, as he so often did on Maverick and The Rockford Files. Garner was a hero who most often used his wits to win the day.

My favorite Garner film is The Great Escape, where he played the scrounger, Hendley, but that’s because of the film as a whole, which is a great story and jam-packed with terrific actors.  My favorite Garner film role is the title character in Murphy’s Romance, a sweet and tender film, where an older Garner falls for Sally Field’s single mother. I also have a soft spot for the Sunset, where Garner plays the aging Wyatt Earp and helps Bruce Willis as Tom Mix solve a murder in silent-film era Hollywood. It’s far from a great film, but it is great fun and Willis and Garner have terrific buddy chemistry.

But it is really as Jim Rockford that I’ll always remember James Garner. Among my top two or three favorite TV shows ever. I have the whole series on DVD. Watching it now, it feels dated because the pacing is deliberate, even slow, especially in the early seasons. But Jim Rockford is such an iconic character, and the quintessential private eye. The show was funny and the stories were intriguing. It was, however, James Garner who made the show an all-time classic. As Jimmy Joe Meeker might say, he just fit that character like a hound dog wears its fur.

Delaney & Bonnie Together (but not for long)

On this snowy day, when school, er… I mean work is cancelled, my wife, Amy, and I are listening to classic albums. One of these is Together, by the husband-wife duo of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. This is such a great album, filled with wonderful songs, including two of D&B’s biggest hits, “Only You Know and I Know” and “Coming Home.” It also features a who’s who of great performers from that era. Check out the list of personnel:

Delaney Bramlett – guitar, vocals
Bonnie Bramlett – vocals
Eric Clapton – guitar, vocals
Leon Russell – piano, keyboards, vocals
Duane Allman – guitar, vocals
Dave Mason – guitar, vocals
Carl Radle – bass, vocals
John Hartford – banjo, vocals
Steve Cropper – guitar, vocals
Jim Gordon – drums, vocals
Red Rhodes – steel guitar, vocals
Jaimoe – drums, vocals
Billy Preston – keyboards, piano, vocals
Charlie Freeman – guitar, vocals
Kenny Gradney – bass, vocals
Bobby Whitlock – keyboards, vocals
Bobby Keys – saxophone, vocals
James Jamerson – bass, vocals
Jerry Jumonville – saxophone, vocals
King Curtis – saxophone, vocals
Larry Knechtel – bass, vocals
Darrell Leonard – trumpet, vocals
Jim Price – horns, vocals
Chuck Rainey – bass, vocals
Larry Savoie – trombone, vocals
Rita Coolidge – vocals
Tina Turner – vocals
Venetta Fields – vocals
Merry Clayton – vocals
Eddie Kendricks – vocals
Sam Clayton – vocals
Joe Hicks – vocals
Patrice Holloway – vocals
Tex Johnson – vocals
Clydie King – vocals
Sherlie Matthews – vocals
Gordon De Witty – vocals
Jay York – vocals

This is an overlooked classic album, one of the duo’s best (and sadly, their last, as they would divorce about the time the album was released). If you like classic rock laced with equal portions funk, R&B, and American roots rock, then this is an album you should love. Here’s a video of Coming Home featuring Eric Clapton and George Harrison.