A 1990s Japanese Mecha Anime: Perry Lam reviews ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’

The problem that I have with blockbusters with this day and age is the necessity to be “highbrow” entertainment, in order to be taken seriously. Everyone wants a bit of “conflicted protagonists” or disagreements between the heroes to go along with the popcorn. Which is why Independence Day: Resurgence is so refreshing. Its the 90s action extravaganza updated for the Netflix generation.

20 years after the events of the first movie, Earth has recovered from its devastation at the hands of the alien menace. Using salvaged alien technology, humanity is now in a golden age, its military upgraded with the intention of preparing for another assault. Of course, the aliens do come back but they are bigger, smarter and obsessed with finishing what they started, wiping humanity out. Once again outmatched, humanity now has to rely on heroes both old and new, to make sure we will not go quietly into the night.

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No surprises here, Independence Day: Resurgence’s plot is pretty much the same deal as the first one, big ugly aliens come to earth to invade, we fight back. But there is no tedium to this predictability, in fact, it is this familiarity that makes the film endearing. Narratively the film is tight enough and heavy on plot, the first act is arguably the film’s most well developed and established in terms of storytelling.

While the plot is well established, it is the scale that truly brings out the screenplay’s grandiosity. In a time where blockbuster films would navel gaze and offer us an examination of a hero’s morals and character, Roland Emmerich dusts off the old playbook and gives audiences a reminder about what blockbusters are really about. Scale. Big heroes and even bigger threats. Emmerich offers up massive science fiction vistas, stuff you only have a glimpse of on the covers of retro futuristic science fiction pulp novels, characters climbing up a grounded mothership’s exterior hull, the alien worldship’s gravity well tearing up cities from London to Singapore in a continent sized storm of fire and steel.

The film begins fading in the second act, struggling with what it wants to be. Splintered into two parallel narratives, the first and more interesting one follows the characters from the first act as they find a way to retaliate against the alien threat. However, the film introduces a second ‘everyman’ narrative, where we follow a group of kids in order to experience the devastation of ‘ground zero’ that the aliens have caused, it is here the film introduces 5 characters too many and the main plot line suffers for it. With the script’s emphasis on plot and spectacle, the addition of more characters does not help the film, as this dilutes the entire roster as a whole. We spend some time with each group of characters but never enough to actually give us any relatability.

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Along with the weakly established characters, another sore spot in the film is the third act, which while frenetic, does not exactly pay off as it should. To blame is plot driven script, we do not care for any of the characters and as we race towards climax after climax (there is more than one), one does not ask the question ‘Who is going to survive?’ but rather, we are left with ‘When is it going to actually end?’. The finale nosedives down to power rangers territory, as the aliens transform into bigger threats but since you are not really invested in the threat, you just find it hilarious.

One of the most curious highlights of the film would be the scenes on the moonbase. Straight out of a 1990s Japanese mecha anime, the bitter relationship between Liam Hemsworth’s Jake Morrison and his rival and former friend, Jessie Usher’s Dylan Dubrow-Hiller is very much a classic example of anime rivalry. This is also carried onto the supporting moonbase characters, as Travis Tope’s Charlie is the lovelorn comic relief who pines for the unattainable, stoic Rei Ayanami surrogate, played by Angelababy. Even the premise is steeped in anime tradition, young men and women flying futuristic spacecraft to battle overwhelming extra-terrestrial odds. This is the Evangelion live action film no one expected.

There is a prevalent sense of nostalgia in the film, even beyond the anime influence, other characters like Nicolas Wright’s Floyd is the typical 1980s and 1990s bureaucratic wimp that cowers in face of the ‘macho’ violence that the heroes partake in, yet in an interesting twist, Floyd manages to evolve as a character beyond his perceived lack of masculinity as he gradually warms up to killing aliens, albeit played for comic relief. Which is where the film gets it strengths, it refuses to be taken seriously, it knows what it wants to be and is unabashed in casting itself as such. The dialogue is heavy on one liners, almost all of which are groan inducing, they rarely work as serious lines of character building dialogue but as fun, ‘I can’t believe he/she said that’ moments, they are a riot.

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This cheesy throwback approach works as a great time at the movies but upon closer inspection, it is all the film has to offer. It is coasting on old glory, a well-worn road we have been down on. Perhaps it is more accurate to describe it as Emmerich’s style, the nostalgic approach that worked for the script, giving it a fun upbeat attitude only serves to amplify the weaknesses of the technical aspects of filmmaking. In short, the film looks dated, the overabuse of mid shots, so we can see AND hear what is going on screen instead of one or the other, is an extremely safe approach to large scale movie making in a bygone era.

Close ups rarely factor into the story, only used to capture pilot faces during dogfights. And wide shots don’t even serve a storytelling purpose beyond establishing shots to show where are the characters visiting next, which is usually accompanied by ominous looking government style font on the bottom screen to remind us we are in Area 51. This ‘play it safe approach’ is not exactly problematic but it turns the movie into a really generic looking one, you will enjoy your time in the theatre but you will have have a hard time remembering them past a few establishing shots.

Aurally the film is nothing to shout about either, it is a typical action movie score that does not add to the story, there are no cool motifs or powerful anthems. There is nothing that the music can do that the dialogue already did, all it serves is a reminder that we are supposed to feel sad if a character dies or happy when lovers are reunited. It is utterly mechanical.

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Mechanical can also be used to describe some of the performances, though one can argue, with the plot driven narrative and the focus on spectacle, the actors really do not have much to work with. The new hires fail to capture the imagination, Liam Hemsworth and Jesse Usher are serviceable as the two leads but they can’t hold a candle to Will Smith’s charisma and screen presence in the first film. Angelababy is awful in her role as Rain, clearly a shoo-in to capitalize on the booming Chinese market, she nonetheless looks out of a league in her scenes, overwhelmed by what is happening around her. On the flip side, the old guard fares better, proving they still got it. Jeff Goldblum is one of the better things of the film, as David Levinson he is quirky as ever but never annoying. Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore is now a broken old man, he isn’t the heroic, hotshot pilot and orator anymore and Pullman manages to humanize the iconic role, offering an intriguing take on the character as well as providing the film with one of its only character arcs.

In face of the non-existent character development and its generic craftsmanship, I still have to say, they don’t make movies like this anymore. This is not a good film but it is an enjoyable time at the pictures. The film dares to be old school and succeeds at capturing the tone and storytelling methods of a more innocent time, it is mediocre, it is uneven but above all else, it is fun. That makes it an endearing film to cheer for.

 

***/5

A live action saturday morning cartoon. For those who were old enough to have watched the first film, this is a grand time at the movies. For those who don’t, this is a lesson in film history, of how tentpoles used to be made.

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Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of the documentary short film BLACK RAT has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas. https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/
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Character Shields at Full Power: Perry Lam reviews ‘The Divergent Series: Allegiant’

The Divergent Series: Allegiant is the third film in a four film franchise based on the popular young adult book series. Allegiant takes place in a post-apocalyptic Chicago which is walled up around the city’s perimeter. Tris (Shailene Woodley) rounds up a group of her friends to escape the city, when they venture out the safety of walled up Chicago, they discover that the world outside is not as desolate as it was thought to be. They slowly adjust to their new surroundings but a brewing civil war back in Chicago will test where their loyalties lie.

Films are supposed to stand on their own legs, with no help from backstory or relying on past entries in the franchise. I am going to make it clear, I did not watch the rest of the films in the Divergent series. However, I find that it should not be an excuse for a film’s flaws and problems. Allegiant fails as a  movie, stuck as a transitional entry in between the beginning of the franchise and its end, it suffers from lack of clear focus on what it wants to be. The plot is rarely coherent, with the film attempting to overcompensate by info dumping on backstory or previous films, but such frequent uses of exposition only confuses or bore the audience, barely giving them enough time to digest the previous scene before being force fed another.

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The dialogue runs the gamut of hammy to overwrought with teenage angst, Tris and her lover, Four (Theo James) constantly remind us they are in love, as they stare lovingly into each other’s eyes. Not only is it hackneyed, it comes across as extremely lazy, none of their scenes together actually progress their romantic arc, serving only as a weak reminder so we don’t forget they are actually a couple.

While the romantic scenes are reminders, the action scenes attempt to entertain but fails due to their predictability. The escape over the wall comes to mind, we all know Tris and her group of escapees would find their way over the wall, so why waste time on an unnecessary action scene that only serves to kill off a minor character that everyone forgets? There is no sense of consequence and stakes in the screenplay and all major characters have their character shields at full power, which makes the narrative predictable.

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By the third act, Tris has faded to the background, as underdeveloped characters from the first two acts start taking up the screen, due to little to no prior character development, we don’t really care about their sudden emergence and the film is unable to balance these various plot points.

There is a dominating perception of genericity in the film, nothing truly stands out, the cinematography is serviceable but really, considering this is a science fiction film, one that has their characters running through crater filled crimson deserts and majestic white towers, one would expect better. Despite spending a significant time outside the wall, we never truly experience the world, every scene that had visual potential was shot in close up, probably for budgetary reasons, while anything shot in wide is either on a set or animated with poor CGI. With the exception of a scant few gorgeous establishing shots that haunt us with all the missed opportunities, there is nothing that visually pops from the screen.

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Performances by the principle cast tend to be dry and mechanical. Shailene Woodley is docile and disinterested as Tris, droning away her dialogue, never truly coming alive. The characterization of Tris is also problematic, despite being the protagonist, she evaporates as the film progresses, as other characters such as Four take up more screen time.

Four does not get to do more beyond being part of several Jason Bourne-esque fight scenes and perhaps it is for the better, as Theo James seems way out of his league in emotional scenes with his mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts), who owns every scene she is in with her son. Along with Watts, Jeff Daniels tries his best to add layers to his role as the manipulative David, constantly tugging on the strings of characters like a grandmaster on a chessboard, but the character himself lacks screen time, and it is simply isn’t enough to save the film.

Watching Allegiant, they are obviously pandering to two sections of audiences, it wants to work as a film for newcomers, hence the expository dialogue and it wants to appeal to fans of the franchise. It fails at doing both. Despite a few beautiful establishing shots, there is nothing Allegiant can offer that hasn’t already been done in its two genres, young adult film adaptations and post-apocalyptic science fiction.

 

*1/2/5

With the exception of a few beautiful shots of scenery and good performances by Naomi Watts and Jeff Daniels, newcomers to the franchise will be put off by the film’s banality while fans will find this a forgettable entry in the series.

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Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/
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Teasing Threads Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Ridley Scott’s The Martian

Chris Palazzolo examines The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott (2015)

MartianWhat actually happens in Ridley Scott’s The Martian? Well in one sense a very big thing happens: an astronaut is stranded on Mars and in order to survive long enough for a rescue mission to arrive devises a way of growing potatoes thus proving that humans can live there. But if a narrative is marked by the physical and psychological changes that occur in a character, then in another sense you have to conclude that nothing happens; the astronaut loses some weight, grows a beard, hobbles a bit at the end (especially after years of comparative weightlessness on Mars) but he seems to bear no psychological scars at all, no nightmares, no visions, no existential dissociations, nothing. Neither do any of the rescue crew for that matter, or the staff at the space agencies, toiling for years on this mission. Throughout the movie all the characters express surprise, bemusement, frustration, triumph and all the emotions one would expect them to express; they express them all uniformly – no one character seems more or less stressed than any other. They all, without exception, just get on with it, no one is lazy, no one is cowardly, no one has any other agenda, apart from doing their job to the best of their abilities – everyone is the best; the best at the beginning, the best in the middle and the best at the end.

This is Hard SF. The only real character is the science; the human characters merely agents, or vectors for conveying scientific concepts in dazzling high resolution cinematography. How strange to see such a film, in an era of cinema where every hero and superhero is ‘humanised’ with some kind of backstory (even James Bond has a backstory now. How decadent is that!) And how strange that it should be from Ridley Scott, who’s other sci fi movies – Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus – explore the murderous nexus of science, corporate power and human weakness. Here we have a sci fi film who’s characters have no backstories (apart from ‘parents,’ their only backstories are their qualifications), and where the science/power nexus is flooded with the dreamy luminousness of inexhaustible Reason, inexhaustible competence of its staff and inexhaustible funds from an unmentioned taxpayer. This is a joyous and unreserved paean to Science. It’s as if Scott and his writers thought ‘stuff all this realistic character motivations, ‘cat’s cradle’ technologies, and corporate-bureaucratic totalitarianisms. We’re going to make a sci fi movie about a perfect cheerful scientific meritocracy where any human failings (pride, envy, sloth, etc) will simply not exist at all.’ Of course the danger of this kind of representation is that it is actually a scientific aristocracy, of the kind portrayed in the movie Gattaca – which of course begs the question, what does such a world do with the mass of not-so-well-favoured, not-so-gifted (that is to say the insignificant plodders who are the victims and incompetents in Scott’s other sci fi movies)?  It’s beautiful, but it’s not drama. A circus perhaps – ‘Rescue Mission’ told in a sequence of cosmic trapeze acts.

I think The Martian is a kind of Science Agit-Prop. And I think the reasoning behind it is this: the 21st century has seen the emergence of theology allied with instrumental rationality. If Reason (with a capital R) signifies the marriage of scientific knowledge with humanism (life and liberty as the arbiter of all things), instrumental rationality is the technical manipulation of the material world divorced from Reason. Consider the example of Ben Carson, one of the US Republican contenders in the current round of presidential primaries. Carson, a neuro-surgeon, asserts the literal truth of the biblical account of creation; by doing so he rejects 250 years of modern geological science, and the crucial role that branch of science played in the development of the alloys of the surgical steel from which the instruments that he uses to probe his patients’ brains are made. In the face of this terrifying denial of Science by such an intelligent man, perhaps the ecstatic emptiness of The Martian can be defended. But it’s a risky move. By flooding its narrative with the undifferentiated light of Reason, abolishing all the inner shadows of its characters, I’m reminded of Vico’s cautioning against exposing the mind to Reason’s pure light; in its ecstasy Un-Reasoning faith can take hold. Such light needs to be refracted by mirrors of representation – art, poetry, music, the reading of history – humanism in other words. Perhaps I should add comedy to this list, because that’s what saves The Martian from dehumanising faith; its the trial and error slapstick, laughably incongruous songs (70s good old good ones) and the general feel of the whole thing being a bit of a jolly holiday.

– Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.

The Martian has an official Australian website http://www.themartianmovie.com.au/

Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under the Skin’

Chris Palazzolo revisits Under the Skin. Written, directed by Jonathan Glazerand, 2014.

under the skinOn a storm lashed Scottish beach a woman drowns trying to rescue her pet dog from the surf. Her husband, trying to save her, is dragged to shore by a young surfer but runs straight back in presumably to drown too in what appears to be a kind of pet dog suicide pact. The couple’s two year old child is left on the beach. It seems that the surfer will save him at least. Alas, as the surfer lies on the pebbled shore in exhaustion, a young woman approaches and bashes his head in with a rock. The child is doomed to die of exposure. The woman won’t rescue him; she’s only interested in guys she can lure back to her home, and she’s bashed the surfer’s brains in because he went to rescue the couple rather than stay and talk to her.

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, is a hybrid of sci-fi exploitation. The story of a female alien who takes the form of a beautiful young woman in order to hunt on earth is not new. For decades sexy aliens have been seducing pathetic male simpletons with the lure of hot sex with a chick who has the body of a supermodel, in order to have them for lunch, or use them as immediately disposable studs for a new super race of alien overlords. Under the Skin’s contribution to this genre is an elliptical sang froid exemplified by the scene on the beach. Unlike its b-grade cousins, the narrative doesn’t take the side of humanity against the alien, but is in fact a device for a dispassionate, naturalist gaze on human (and alien) behaviour; a kind of study of habitat invasion, in which all the multiform beauty and cruelty of nature is shown without any cloudings of morality or ‘delicate feelings’ interfering with the representation. The parents abandon their child on a beach to rescue a dog; this is not an occasion for moralising about bad parenting, but just what happens in nature, in the same way a bird lets its own young starve to death while it feeds the greedy gullet of a cuckoo; one of the ways nature ‘selects’ a particular genetic line for extinction.

The natural milieu is British rave culture; the predatory tango of heterosexual coupling and decoupling in the context of Glaswegian nightclubs and backpacker hostels. The means by which the alien hunts is sexual lure; the body of the hot chick is a plumage. But the alien is a product of human imagination so this is where kinky artifice reigns; the lunar paraphilia of the narrative gaze which has not so much expunged human nature of all morality but concentrated the moralistic impulse into a castration fear towards the toddler egoism of female sexuality.

It’s difficult not to see Under the Skin as an allegory of STDs. The central motif is rubber. The alien’s skin is a sheaf of shiny black rubber like the sweet smelling rubber beloved of fetishists (contrast this to David Bowie’s alien in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, whose skin was a kind of milky goo, as if the organism had never separated from the lactating matrix). The alien lures its prey into a vast room full of what looks like sump oil, but is in actual fact crystal clear liquid rubber. There the prey is consumed, over a period of days, as it floats suspended in the clinging phlegm until it is nothing more than a flap of bodiless skin like a discarded condom floating in a drain.

– Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.

You can find out more about Teasing Threads here:  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/07/10/introducing-chris-palazzolos-teasing-threads-sundry-film-and-literary-criticism/

The Under  the Skin website http://undertheskinmovie.com/

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Alien Steampunk: B. J. Muirhead reviews ‘The Airmen (Part 1: The Pirates of Aireon)’ by R.J. Ashby

The Airmen (Part 1: The Pirates of Aireon) by R.J. Ashby. Dragonfall Press 2012.

AirmenScience-fiction is a very difficult area in which to publish. A part of the reason is the unwillingness of publishers to take on unknown authors in a world where it seems that fame alone sells. I would not have believed the extent to which this is the case if one sci-fi writer had not told me over coffee that his publisher was begging him to write fantasy in place of the planned volumes he already had been signed to write. The point of mentioning this is that, in spite of this, there is a lot of good work written and published that may not receive the exposure it deserves.

The Pirates of Aireon is one such work. It is a science-fiction adventure set on a planet which seems entirely unsuited to human life, a planet almost entirely covered by ocean, above which float giant cities which are divided into groupings of nations, all of which surround Rimland, the one known area of land, in the middle of which is a lake, complete with sailing ships and another island on which is the entrance to Underworld, where no one but priests of the Sacred Flame are welcome.

Everything technological which the people need for life, the metal for the cities and airships, fruit, vegetables and more, come from Rimland and Underworld; everything but fish and ocean driftweed, the latter being an unpalatable but nutritious seaweed infested with giant leeches. The ocean also is home to a variety of dangerous creatures, including a variety of sharks and krakens, which hide in deep water and attack creatures on the water surface. Airships are the only viable means of transport between the cities and Rimland, and are made of lightweight, gravity resisting metal skeletons covered with canvas.

Jardan, the twenty-one year old central male character, lives on the Rochelle, a three hulled, three winged airship with his father Borges. As airmen they find and strip wrecked airships of everything that is useful, in particular the valuable engine parts and the crystals which power them. Airmen avoid the cities which are overcrowded, polluted and often dangerous, preferring to live a nomadic life in their airships, only stopping at the cities when they need supplies and have salvage to sell.

Most of this is learnt in the first few chapters, which present an almost idyllic lifestyle for Jardan and Borges, apart from the need to keep watch for pirates, and the predators in the ocean.

The set up for the story is accomplished and peaks our interest. In fact, the entire book holds a reader’s interest easily, partly because the action is ongoing and compelling enough to sustain interest, and partly because new information is injected into the action in a way that is natural and pushes the story forward until we are deeply involved in a culture which is almost unbelievably vicious and anarchic within a rigid social structure. People kill each other regularly, almost without thought. The worst among them are the pirates, living in Aireon, a city which many have heard of, but whose location is known to few. Jardan arrives in Aireon after killing all but one of the pirates who attacked the Rochelle and killed his father. The only escape, after he and the female pirate Rowella had been rescued by a salvage vessel, whose crew Jardan then killed when they planned to rape Rowella, was the pirate city of Aireon, where Jardan is sold as a slave.

Both Jardan and Rowella are accomplished pilots and fighters, and when they escape Aireon they are accompanied by an acolyte from Rimland, who convinces them to take their stolen airship to Rimland where the truth of their presence on the planet is discovered by Jardan and Rowella.

The difficulty for me in writing about it is that there is so much action in this book, so many plot diversions and twists, that it is very difficult to provide a feel for the work that doesn’t seem as though it is outrageously absurd. There is a sadistic assassin, for example, who chases Jardan after the latter, without meaning to, caused the death of the son of a crime gang leader, and there is the Chairwoman, the insane elderly leader of the pirates and grandmother to Rowella, who saves Jardan from the Chairwoman and who becomes, after many misunderstandings, Jardan’s lover. But it is not the most complex novel of this type, and this gives it a directness which other adventure stories often lack. Suffice it to say, therefore, that the story is well constructed and believable within the constraints of the planet and steampunk technology, bearing in mind that the story expands and evolves so that many of our questions—how did such a strange society come about? being just one—are answered.

As the first in a planned series of books this sustained, and restrained, release of relevant information works well, and we certainly don’t have anywhere near all of the answers by the end, but nor does the end leave us hanging uncomfortably waiting for the next volume. By the time we reach the last page, the story being told has been finished satisfactorily, which in this instance means that although everything in this volume has been resolved, new elements have been introduced as the foundation for the next book in the series.

The second book in The Airmen series (The Kraken Hunters) has been written, but the whole series is a victim of the closure of Dragonfall Press.

Ashby, however, is a determined writer, and has commenced a new series, (The Kingbreaker Chronicles) published by Ticonderoga Publications.

I personally hope, however, that The Airmen series will be revived. Part One is a good read for kids, and anyone else who likes adventure with a dash of planetary science fiction.

– Bruce Muirhead

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BJ Muirhead is a writer and photographer living in rural Queensland. He has published online and in print journals, and was included in an anthology of Queensland poetry (1986). He has published art criticism and was photographic reviewer for the Courier-Mail newspaper in the 1980s. His writing and recent exhibitions, Primary Evidence (2011) andFlesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com.

Unfortunately with the closure of Dragonfall Press it maybe difficult to locate a copy of The Airmen. A search of the internet, however, may turn up some copies. Further details maybe available from R.J. Ashby’s website http://www.rjashby.com/index.html.
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