Category: Movies

Should You Watch “The Man in the High Castle?”


Philip K. Dick has long been one of my favorite science fiction authors, excelling in inventiveness and concision. His stories are plot-driven and to the point, which makes them almost perfect for movie adaptations. Some of those (think The Blade Runner) came out splendid, while others (think A Scanner Darkly) were more mixed blessings.

Of course, this being science fiction, making movies out of novels was always hampered by cost. Science fiction is not cheap to special effect on any day, and plot-driven (as opposed to action-driven or character-driven) movies are a particularly expensive type. They have none of the bombastic effects of, say, a planetary explosion while not much of the cheap timeouts of a romantic subplot.

Many of Dick’s novels have hence languished for decades in the realm of the undoable. Things are not helped by the fact one of the central themes of Dick’s work is the loss of reality – a problem he was facing in real life, as he was losing his grip on it. That seems to be much less of an issue for most people than it was for him, and as a result much of the logic of Dick’s plots becomes irrelevant. That is particularly true of the author’s later work.

Of his early work, though, The Man in the High Castle always seemed within reach. It’s an alternate history, events that happened after the Allied Powers won WW II. (For my history-challenged friends: the USA and USSR actually won WW II. Also, the Allied Powers were Germany and Japan. Mostly, in both cases.)

Imagine America falls. Japan takes over the West Coast, while Germany takes the Eastern half of the country (approximately to the Rocky Mountains). Dick’s favorite place on earth, San Francisco, becomes the capital of the Japanese Pacific States of America, while New York City is the new capital of the Greater Nazi Reich. (I hate to quibble, but a German would call that Greater German Reich, not Nazi Reich.)


Elysium (2013)

Elysium PosterI was curious about this movie, an allegory of the current state of mankind and of health care. Not curious enough to break my long-standing ban on movie theaters, but enough to actually pay-per-view on Amazon.

My conclusion: the problems with which the movie concerns itself are real, but the movie doesn’t work. It is too slow, too long, and the plot has severe theatrical deficiencies.

Let’s start with a plot summary. It is some time in the 22nd century. Earth is an ugly, overpopulated, diseased planet. So much so that the rich moved to an orbiting station called Elysium where they can pursue a life of quiet boredom, or cocktail parties and giant mansions.

We are of course on Earth, where a young boy is in the care of a selfless nun. He meets a girl, and the two make a pact to one day go to Elysium. (I should mention that the casting of the children as precursors was spectacular, and the moment the camera switches to current time with the adults replacing the children is uncanny).

By the time we wake up with the adults, it’s 2154. The former child is now a reformed law-breaker living in the barrios of Los Angeles. He still wears an ankle monitoring device, which is simply intended as a hint to his current condition and doesn’t actually figure in the plot. Our hero has a job in a robot manufacturing factory and is constantly harassed and abused by the authorities.


Cloud Atlas (2013)

cloud atlasIt’s not often that I get to see a movie based on a novel I haven’t read. I am a voracious reader, but I do not like going to the movies. Cloud Atlas gave me that chance: I had read about the novel only in passing, but the movie was front and center on the Amazon home screen. A perfect opportunity!

I hear the novel was not doing so well, until it hit China and then it became a huge hit. Reading about the structure, I make sense of the cultural difference that could lead to different acceptance.

The novel is a cheap read, apparently, because the author wrote not one, but six independent stories and joined them in a very creative fashion. The plot starts out in the South Pacific in 1850. It’s a fanciful plot of betrayal and greed. About half-way through this story – poof, it turns out the whole thing was just something someone else read in 1931. That someone else has an own story that goes to the half-way mark, and then it turns out that this story was something read by someone in 1975.

This goes on until the last (sixth) story, which is set in the future and has a fighting chance to find an end. After the end of this story, the end of the story before is told, followed by the story before it. At the end, we hear the second half of the first story, the one set in the South Pacific in 1850.


Amazon Pilots: Zombieland

Imagine an office. Two co-workers chatting over some tiny calorie-counting lunch. He is complaining about trifles and trivialities like the world is falling apart. She is listening empathetically, as if she could possibly care.

The two, for mysterious reasons, have a window office. For even more mysterious reasons, they are eating their lunch facing away from that giant status symbol of a window. And while they spoon their sugar-free yogurts and leaf away at that non-fat ranch dressing salad, mayhem ensues just outside the window.

It’s hard not to burst out laughing when the guy complains about a nothing while someone is being hacked at with a chain saw in the background. It’s absurd, it’s unexpected, it’s glorious. Unfortunately, it’s the funniest part of the episode, and the rest doesn’t quite match up.

Maybe you have seen something similar. When I went to watch the original Ice Age movie, that little squirrel had me rolling on the floor, laughing. Everybody else felt like that in the theater. We were not expecting that. The movie after that was not nearly as funny. It was a good movie, but compared to the squirrel bit, it disappointed.

Zombies are everywhere, and our four heroes march around Los Angeles in search of a safe spot. They are guided by the Onstar lady, who seems to know where they can find colonies of the uninfected, as well as struggling stragglers around town. Our heroes try to find more members to their party (not sure why), but fail at every turn.


Amazon Pilots: Browsers

[Note: Amazon has published a series of pilots for a variety of shows, asking viewers for their opinion on which ones should continue. It’s an innovative way to farm out a choice the company is not really capable of making, since this is their first attempt at content production.]

BrowsersImagine Ugly Betty. With four unpaid Betties. And musical numbers. That’s Browsers in a nutshell.

Four enterprising young folks start their internship at the online magazine, Gush. They are told they are to browse the web and find interesting content, to the tune of 40 amazing links a day. After one week, one of them is going to get fired. Justin, annoying fifth-of-six-executive-assistants to the vicious Johanna, seems amused at the turmoil he inflicts. Johanna, when she shows up, is a veritable meanbag. Turmoil ensues, and in the end nobody is as evil as they seemed.

The team that created this show has impressive credentials and it is a little surprising they didn’t see the potential pitfalls of their approach. Surely they should have known that four equivalent protagonists are hard to flesh out when they have to compete with a machine in the background and musical numbers in the foreground. Indeed, the four come across as stereotypes through and through, and it’s really hard to think of them as anything but The Pretty Girl, The Compulsive Tweeter, The Gay Activist, and The Asian Pothead. The problem, of course, is not with the setup, but with the constraint of having to compete on the strength of the pilot alone.

While we find Betty multiplied by four, the remaining cast of Ugly Betty has to be combined in single characters in this show. Bebe Neuwirth (of Cheers and Frasier fame) is Johanna, the magazine’s editor/owner. As such, she mainly replaces the position of Wilhelmina in Ugly Betty. As hard as that seems to be, Bebe Neuwirth’s Johanna is much too kind and nice. Wilhelmina, portrayed by the absolutely smashing Vanessa Williams, was a thermonuclear explosion in every episode of that show. Johanna is more a hen mother turned sour, and it’s hard to see how she would create the comedic tension required.


Chasing Mavericks (2012)

{youtube}jh09vEGNrXc{/youtube}Everybody had been telling me I should watch Chasing Mavericks, but I somehow didn’t feel inclined. Surf movies – and movies about surfing, which is not the same thing – tend to be depressingly fictionalized. They portray the world as a surfer would love it to be, and not as it is. The waves are always perfect, the bros are always on a spiritual quest of communion with the ocean, and somehow there are always more ladies in the water than anyone has witnessed in a lifetime.

Big wave surfing, which is what Mavericks is famous for, is then the ultimate of the type. Big wave conditions are exceedingly rare, especially in California; until recently the sport was extremely exclusionary; and there were virtually no big wave surfers that were also women. Testosterone drove the sport, and it showed.

Last night, someone decided we should watch Chasing Mavericks, and I reluctantly agreed. I was pleasantly surprised.


Skyfall (2012)

Wait! I already watched this movie!

It was the distant year 1982. The first movie of a successful franchise had been very disappointing. The producers could smell the money, but knew there was nothing to be won by continuing on the trodden path. So, the very keen decision: kill one of the main characters, add an amazing and disposable super-villain, and allow for a reboot with fresh blood.

The movie in 1982 was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Ricardo Montalban was the titular character, Khan, an antagonist with an old grudge and a score to settle. The beloved character that had to go was Spock, the Vulcan science officer whose actor, Leonard Nimoy, was probably sick of the pointy ears and who had a lot more to offer than “Fascinating.”

In 2012, 30 years later, things didn’t change much. This time, the actor that needs to go is Dame Judy Dench – maybe she’s ready for retirement? She had been playing M in James Bond movies since 1992, and was by all accounts a giant asset to the franchise. But maybe she’s too old, or just bored.


Extract (2009)

Extract movie posterMike Judge is a funny guy. Office Space and Idiocracy are some of the most intriguingly humorous movies in recent history, with Idiocracy gaining renewed hilarity because Microsoft’s Metro user interface looks remarkably like the pictogram computer interface in the movie.

Extract is a movie by Mike Judge, who wrote, directed, produced, and even cameo-ed in it. But it’s funny only in stretches, without an overall funny theme. Given how the other two movies worked out, that’s a little short of expectations, which explains why the movie is already available on Netflix.

The plot is straightforward: Joel Reynolds is an entrepreneur that has made a fortune with his home-grown extract flavoring business. He’s stuck in a sexless marriage (cue masturbation jokes throughout the first part of the movie) and is unhappy with this workers, who are up to all sorts of mischief. He’s thinking of cheating on his wife to alleviate the pressure on his testicles, and is all too excited when a buyout offer comes in for his business.

Then everything falls apart. The girl with whom he wants to have an affair (played by Mila Kunis, the visual and emotional centerpiece of the movie) is a con artist. The mischief his workers are up to ends up causing an accident that jeopardizes the sale. The guy he sends to test his wife’s fidelity falls in love with her.


Om Shanti Om (2007)

It’s been a long while that I’ve been curious about Bollywood movies. I have enough friends from India that their constant chatter about them has started to make a dent, and I’ve been quite bored with standard Hollywood fare. I think part of it is that Netflix continues suggesting crappy movies from the 80s (Ladyhawke, Labyrinth and Working Girl amongst the latest).

Regardless: when the Internation section of my recommendations contained a Bollywood title with great rating, I added it to my queue, not hoping much, but assuming it would be better than the other stuff I’d seen these days.

To make it short, I loved Om Shanti Om. I found the cinematography outstanding, the musical numbers catchy, and the plot sufficiently strong to carry it all. I can’t speak to the acting, as I don’t know much about the conventions in Bollywood, but the outlandish beauty of supermodel Deepika Padukone speaks for itself, especially when she is playing the furious angel of revenge.


Gattaca (1997)

Another Netflix suggestion – I would love this movie because, after all, I loved 12 Monkey. Well, stinking suggestion engine, the only thing the two movies seem to have in common is a fondness for naked males, otherwise they couldn't be any farther from each other.

I had the first inkling of catastrophe when I read "Written and directed by Andrew Niccol". Movies written and directed by someone frequently have this crusading tone, and the mixture of crusade and science fiction is usually lethal.

That's exactly what's going on here. The movie, a mere ten years old, is already behind on most innovations, such that instead of being in the "not so distant future," it already looks antiquated.