The Worst Memory

Meru_PosterThe new mountain climbing movie Meru opens in Missoula tonight, and runs for a week. I strongly urge you to see it. If you don’t live in Missoula, I strongly urge you to find where it’s showing and see it. It’s a human interest story that happens to involve mountain climbers. It’s one of those rare movies I will actually purchase so I can watch whenever I want to. I have a review in the current Indy, which you can check out HERE. An excerpt:

In 2008 Anker assembled a new team, and that is where the film opens. Joined by frequent climbing partner and photographer/filmmaker Jimmy Chin (who codirects the film with his wife, filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) and hotshot younger climber/filmmaker Renan Ozturk, the three men came the closest yet to actually reaching the summit. Expecting to take a week in the ascent, the climbers were trapped in their portaledge for four days while a storm dumped 10 feet of snow on them. Ultimately they spent 19 days on the wall, rationing their week’s worth of food, before giving up and turning back with the summit a mere 100 meters away.

I’ve been a huge fan of Jimmy Chin for years, and my respect for him is even greater now. His photography is stunning, and he seems to be a very cool guy. I’m just in awe of what these people are able to accomplish. They are world class, best-in-the-world-at-what-they-do types, even if what they do isn’t something most of us can even comprehend as to why they even want to. I love that kind of passion.

 

Solomon Kane

solomon_kaneA few years ago I visited the Robert E. Howard Museum in Cross Plains, Texas. I was standing in the hallway outside the tiny bedroom where he’d done his writing (the museum is the house the famed creator of Conan the Barbarian grew up in) and Arlene, the woman giving me the tour, told me how a guy had stood in that room and recited from memory the poem, “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming,” and how stirring it had been. I can only imagine. To call those spirits up via booming oratory must have been something to behold.

Solomon Kane is another of Howard’s creations. Simply, he is a Puritan who travels around fighting evil and dark magic. I remember when I first read the stories I was somewhat taken aback. The majority of them take place in Africa, which was a surprise. A legendary swordsman, he is also more than willing to blast a villain in the face with his flintlock pistol as well. The stories are pure Howard, though; grim and dark, with lots of grit and dark magic swirling with evil. I enjoyed them.

This movie, the first to feature the character, was made in the Czech Republic in 2009. It didn’t get a North American release until 2012, though. I feared it was because it sucked, but a little digging will reveal generally favorable reviews. I don’t know that it ever really got a wide release in the USA. If it did, it certainly never played in Missoula. I’d been anticipating seeing it ever since I first heard about it, so when it finally came available for purchase, I jumped all over it.

I’m sure Howard purists hate it, just like they generally have most of the Conan movies that have been made (particularly the Jason Momoa version released in 2011). I’m not so picky. I just want the movie to be fun, work within the confines of its own world, and any flirtation with anything Howard-like is a bonus. I’m more than happy to let my imagination fill in all but the most glaring holes.

Solomon Kane delivers. James Purefoy (best known probably as Mark Antony in the Rome series from HBO) does a great job as Kane. The constant rain and darkness of the setting is also fantastic. The creepy evil (a scene with some ghouls in a burned-out church was as cool as anything fantasy movie-related I’ve seen) is pure Howard, and there is a pervading sense of dread and hopelessness throughout.

It is supposed to be an origin story about how Kane came to be the man he is in the Howard stories, something we didn’t really get from Howard (that I can recall). It has its share of problems; it certainly isn’t a “great movie” by any stretch of the imagination. There is a degree of predictability, some parts that made me groan a little, and it winds up getting a bit overblown, a problem that pervades modern action/adventure movies. But I found the character as portrayed close enough to the Kane I remembered to enjoy it, and taken as a dark fantasy sword swinging movie epic, it’s better than most. A few scenes were even excellent. I think there is a fairly high bar for this sort of thing, given the success of franchises like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, and if this movie doesn’t equal them it certainly comes close enough for my tastes. Sadly, I doubt that the original plan to make this a trilogy will happen. Which is a shame, because I’d love to see a couple more. Purefoy makes a great lead for this kind of Swords & Sorcery & Mud action. I didn’t regret one moment of the late hours I spent staying up to watch this movie via iTunes on a Saturday night.

 

Feel Good Hit of the Summer

world-war-z-posterLast weekend Julia and I ordered up some pizza (take out, since we live in the wilderness now)(i.e. a place that doesn’t get pizza delivery) and watched via Blu Ray a movie we’d intended to see in the theater but never got around to, World War Z. This movie, based on the novel by Max Brooks, was more than just a star vehicle for Brad Pitt: he played a major role in getting rights to it and getting it made. It didn’t seem to be a story that could be made into a film, as the book isn’t a traditional novel in any sense. Instead, it is a fake “oral history” of a war against zombies that has recently been fought. It is broken up into sections, each totally different from the last, capturing the stories of different people and how they managed during the events. No central character, no central theme, nothing. I loved the book, and I was curious to see if the filmmakers managed to pull it off. For my money, they did. Big time. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie.

I’m not a zombie movie guy. In fact of all the “supernatural” entities that books and movies regularly come back to — vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc. — they are far and away my least favorite. But this really isn’t a “zombie movie” at all. It is more of an action/adventure movie, which is right up my alley. The zombies are the villains, certainly, but they really aren’t even in the movie all that much.

So the premise is some virus has swept across the earth and civilization starts to crumble. Brad Pitt’s character is a former employee of the UN, who apparently did a lot of work in hot spots around the world. He gets dragged into the plan to take this young doctor to South Korea to investigate the possible origin of the virus. One thing leads to another, and Pitt finds himself needing to complete the doctor’s work. So he becomes the central thread of the story, and the individual stories ala how the book is written are the different places he goes and the people he encounters.

Pitt is a tough guy, but he’s no ex-military badass. He is the type of action character I prefer. He’s smart, observant, and a survivor. He does kick some ass when it’s necessary, but he takes a hell of a beating too. I found the movie fun and exciting, and it kept me on the edge of my seat. At PG-13, it wasn’t full of graphic violence either. Their was some grossness, sure, but what violence there was was more implied than splashed across the screen, and that is more effective in my opinion anyway.

Sure there are holes that can be punched in the movie, and there are a few problems. But it destroys most of the action movies I’ve seen lately, and was two hours of entertaining escapism, which was exactly what I wanted from it. I’ll definitely see it again.

 

Blockbuster Season is Upon Us

Every year, May ushers in the season of the summer blockbuster movie. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m usually a sucker for these things. Probably my guiltiest pleasure, in fact, though I don’t feel any guilt at all. I enjoy going to movies, I enjoy spectacle, and there are certain movies that simply must be seen on a big screen. So every year there are easily a half-dozen or so that I look forward to. So far this year I’ve seen three.

The Great Gatsby

new-great-gatsby-posterDoes this qualify as a blockbuster? Maybe not, but I’d mentioned before my desire to see it, so I figured I should report back the results: I really liked it. I don’t know that I loved it, at least not to the degree perhaps that George R.R. Martin did, but I probably enjoyed it the most of the three films mentioned here. The telling adheres quite closely to the Fitzgerald novel, and the changes made I definitely feel serve the story. I like the glitz and bombast, though frankly I’d have preferred some of the dancing scenes to be extended a little, or at least not cut away from so quickly. Using modern music was also a plus, and the cast was excellent. Much of the cinematography was breathtaking, even the CGI stuff. Scenes cut with actual footage from the era were excellent as well. Leonardo DiCaprio killed it in the title role, and I’m not saying this as someone who generally considers himself a Leo fan. Top to bottom, I felt all the performers delivered the goods.

My favorite scene [and this might be a spoiler if you don’t know the story] is the one toward the end, where the tension reaches its highest point, when Gatsby is trying to convince Daisy to tell Nick that she never loved him, and that she always loved Gatsby. This builds to the climax of the entire movie, and I thought it was handled very well. We see all the emotions of the characters, and I was riveted to the screen. Daisy struggles with her emotions, and seems to be with Gatsby . . . but something changes. Is it when she sees him lose his temper? Is it when Tom reveals the source of Gatsby’s wealth? Who knows for sure, but it happens. And from there the end comes at us like a freight train.

Good stuff. Compared to the next two movies (which I saw before this one), it was a nice change to have an ending that wasn’t totally overwrought. Recommended.

Iron Man 3

iron man 3 posterI had high hopes for this one based on the trailers. I was never much of an Iron Man fan, but when the first movie came out I loved it and thought Robert Downey Jr. did an excellent job as Tony Stark. Iron Man 2 was just so-so to me, but then the character rebounded mightily in the Avengers movie. This one was a little disappointing; I’d slot it in somewhere between the 1st and 2nd movies in this franchise. There are some nice twists in it, and Guy Pierce does an awesome turn as a villain, but Downey’s shtick as Stark is wearing a little thin. Maybe I’m just tired of Downey in general. I think I learned I liked him better in a supporting role like the Avengers than as the main guy. My favorite parts were his interaction with this kid he encounters — he was kind of a dick to the kid in a lot of ways. Frankly, I enjoyed that. I also liked that his girlfriend, Pepper Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), isn’t just there to be saved.

The problem with it is there is just too much going on. Too many robotic Iron Man suits. Too many of the same gags of him working out the kinks with his technology (one of the highlights of the first movie). And the ending . . . just way, way too much. It’s like directors get this toy box of CGI shit they can mess with and want to use ALL OF IT. It gets tiresome. Bigtime action movies, even comic book properties, don’t have to be like this. I enjoyed it okay, would see it again, but it isn’t anything that will make you a comic book movie fan if you aren’t already one. It won’t turn you off them either, but it might make you just a little bit weary.

Star Trek: Into Darkness

star-trek-into-darkness-teaser-poster1-610x903I’ve never been a huge Star Trek fan. Never really watched any of the TV shows, saw a couple of the previous movies and liked them to varying degrees, but never considered myself a big fan beyond my general interest in sci-fi stuff. I enjoyed the reboot from a couple years ago, so I was interested to see this one as well. This is one of those movies that, for most of it, I was having a great time with in the theater, but by the end it was starting to lose its luster. By the time I was out of the parking lot I was liking it less and less. I don’t regret seeing it, but it has its problems.

Stuff I liked: spaceships, Klingons, people blasting away at each other with phasers, all the characters but Captain Kirk

Stuff I didn’t like: no decent role for any of the women (and the gratuitous underwear scene was a friggin’ joke and unnecessary), too much reliance on “old” events from previous movies, plot holes I couldn’t ignore, Captain Kirk

And the ending. I really hated the ending on this one. You think it’s over . . . then we have to endure another 20 minute friggin’ action piece. I swear, if I never have to see another movie where characters are jumping from one moving object to another I’ll be happy. And the stuff going on in this one was just too ridiculous for me to suspend my disbelief. It is by no means terrible, but I think if Michael Bay had made the exact same movie that J.J. Abrams has here, it would be rated waaaay lower by critics . . . yet it really isn’t any different from a Michael Bay flick. But don’t take my word for it; here’s a review from my writer friend Jack Badelaire. And here’s a pretty snarky — but fun — takedown from the io9 website.

 

Cowboys, Woolies, and Bears

Watched a movie last night that I thought was fantastic; Sweetgrass. I’d seen it mentioned somewhere before and had it in the Netflix queue, then Julia’s dad recommended it to us so we hunkered down on the couch to check it out. We were not disappointed. Here’s the premise:

An unsentimental elegy to the American West, “Sweetgrass” follows the last modern-day cowboys to lead their flocks of sheep up into Montana’s breathtaking and often dangerous Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. This astonishingly beautiful yet unsparing film reveals a world in which nature and culture, animals and humans, vulnerability and violence are all intimately meshed.

It’s a documentary, but there’s no exposition, no narration, nothing. Just people living a vanishing lifestyle captured on film, performing the ultimate “show, don’t tell” philosophy of all good writing. It features excellent characters in a compelling “Man vs. Wilderness” story with conflict, suspense, and drama. Easily one of my favorite movies of the year. It’s the kind of filmmaking I love, the kind that demands the audience pay attention and not just sit and be bludgeoned over the head. Similar in some ways to another movie I enjoyed last year, Boxing Gym, only better. Highly recommended.