Movies I’ve Seen Lately

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen a few movies I thought were pretty good, though not as good as a lot of people seem to think. Indeed, even Miss Jiwaku has been more thrilled with them than I’ve been.

The three I’m thinking about were: Limitless, Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, and Cabin in the Woods. Just in case you’re scared of “spoilers” I’ll put my thoughts in the extended section.

Limitless: Not a bad effort, particularly, except… well, if there were guys smart enough to make the kind of smart drugs available in this world, then don’t you think they’d take the drugs, and immediately engineer a better version of the drug for which the withdrawal doesn’t kill you? Or, say, a more permanent version of the drug?

Limitless is essentially post-singulatarian fiction, lite. “Lite” because it doesn’t quite take its own speculative conceit seriously enough. Of course, that’s Hollywood SF: the stories that get told in SF movies usually feel to me as if they’d be rejected immediately even by second-rate SF magazines. (And that’s saying something.) I felt a little like asking the person who’d written the script to go read Ted Chiang’s “Understand” — I think that’s the one I’m thinking of — and then try again. “Understand” is unfilmable, of course, but… well, anyway.)

The acting wasn’t bad, though, and mostly it looked good on the screen, though they should have used that telescoping trick shot only once, and shorter… the longer you use a trick onscreen, the more people start to think about the shot and how it was done. And yeah, I mean non-filmmaker people too…

Oh, but: huge props for making an original film. This wasn’t a remake of anything, and I’ve been so sick of remakes that I have to say, any new, original film that screens is a small victory in my books. Well, maybe not any

Batman The Dark Knight Rises: Miss Jiwaku loved this movie. For me, I was torn. I liked how Gotham City wasn’t essentially unaffected like most superhero plots: the city was held hostage by a band of terrorists, people had their nasty inner motives urged out into the bomb circulating the streets and the privation and the lawlessness… and as Miss Jiwaku noted, even minor characters had their own stories, clear motivations and identities.

I liked how things tied together, especially all the League of Shadows stuff–though whether that’s taken from comics, I have no idea–but for me, the story went of the rails when our hero ends up, well, you know where. IT felt like the kind of thing people used to do in serial novels, to lengthen the story, and keep the pennies-per-word rolling in. Except in this case, it lengthened the story and pushed me toward the outer limits of my bladder’s holding capacity. I’ve nothing against long films, in principle, but it needs to pay off. If you’re going to make a three-hour movie, it needs to feel like the three hours were justified, and I was left uneasily troubled by a vague sense that a third hour or so wasn’t justified.

But again, great cinematography, special effects, pretty good acting. Outstanding audio production, and good soundtrack work. (I find I’m paying attention to things that were once invisible to me, yes.)

And I thought the film, at least, didn’t just focus on the terrorist plot: there’s a fair bit of what I’d say is very relatable to Americans (and people in other developed countries, for that matter) today. Anne Hathaway’s Cat-Woman seems to embody a preoccupation with “mistakes” (in her case, criminal records) that haunt her, the way a lot of people in the industrialized world are haunted by their credit reports and debts. The invitation of the terrorists into Gotham City was made by a businessman, and there was more than a whiff of Occupy Wall Street in the chaos that occupies Gotham.

But it was loooooong. Is that a demerit? No. But it felt loooooong. Is that  a demerit? I suspect it might be. But for the record, I liked this Batman better than the last one. Not as much as the first one in the trilogy, though.

Cabin in the Woods: We managed to take in a screening across town earlier this week. Again, Miss Jiwaku really enjoyed it–she is paying close attention to things that used to be invisible to me, and we agreed they were all very well-done–while I thought Cabin in the Woods was clever, funny, and recognizably Joss-Whedonesque. (In fact, Miss Jiwaku and I have been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer straight through, and she didn’t know Whedon was involved in Cabin in the Woods, but she recognized his writing style.)

I thought it was a very funny, clever twist on a lot of horror movie tropes; I thought it was amusing that the most horrifying thing was how the reactions of the facility workers were so very dulled through exposure to the horrific demise of unsuspecting innocents, time after time. In a sense, it’s a bit like “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” except the child in the dark basement being tortured figures out how to break free of her bonds, unleash the torturers on one another, and escape… and the world comes crashing down around her. Well, except there’s two of them.

I thought the moralistic tone of horror movies got an especially fitting mockery: of course those sexual mores are so strict, they’re the stupid rules used by Elder, Evil Gods to justify chowing down on the blood of young innocents, or, er, not-quite-so-innocents.

The only really negative thing I can say about it is that Whedon’s style of writing has become extremely familiar to me lately. There are formulas that work, of course: in Buffy, especially, every enigmatic question is answered almost immediately by  a cut: whatever’s onscreen first in the next scene is the answer to the question. It’s tidy and neat and it works, within the series. But even for the departures from his earlier work that we can see here, there’s something utterly familiar about the way Whedon tells a story. I’m not even really sure that’s a negative thing, though; a lot of people would probably argue it’s a positive. (Branding consistency, effectively.)

Whedon is a very popular storyteller, and an accomplished one. But he also relies a lot on the things he already knows how to do well. Perhaps it’s unfair that I’d complain about him doing this, when all of TV and film seems to do the same, but I can’t help but feel that Whedon could do more–could level up, or something. Maybe he has done so, maybe he’s been working new terrain and just has done it so well it’s invisible to me, but I’m not so sure.   I can understand a reticence, of course: having seen Dollhouse, I can imagine he might be shy about airing too much of a new thing, too much of an experiment, in public, when he knows what works and what will please his fans.

I guess it’s just that, as a writer myself, when I find I’m doing something a little too like what I’ve done before, I try to avoid that, change it up, to work against that kind of safety. But maybe there’s less room in film and TV, once you’re established, to do that. I don’t know.

22 thoughts on “Movies I’ve Seen Lately

  1. I think you are giving Whedon way too much sole credit for 2009’s “Cabin in the Woods.” From what I heard from a buddy who worked on it, Drew Goddard was mostly responsible as Whedon was pretty busy on “Dollhouse” at the time.

    I wonder if MGM is kicking themselves now as it looks like “Cabin” has proven to be a modest hit while back in late 2009/early 2010 the new regime of the company didn’t want to touch the last couple of films approved and shot by the out-going execs. “Cabin” isn’t a film that a couple of years delay would really hurt, but “Red Dawn” might not be so lucky as it was also shot in 2009 and may finally be released at the end of this year.

  2. John,

    Maybe, but his signature humor is all over that film’s script; that much is unmistakable.

    I hope MGM kicks themselves so hard that maybe they realize making new things, instead of remaking bloody everything ever made, is a good idea. Hell, maybe the other film studios might realize it too, given a good example.

    Red Dawn… meh. I have trouble imagining a project I’d care less about. Well, maybe something involving K-pop stars? Oh yeah, they have one of those in cinemas too, now… (or soon will).

  3. I haven’t seen Cabin In The Woods, but Whedon is an experienced script doctor and I wouldn’t be surprised if he sunk his style fairly deeply into the script ‘without doing too much work on it’.

    I think your feelings about Whedon ring true.

    I think he wears a heavy cloak of genre-play in most things he does. He does genre-play really well and it’s great, but some of the most interesting episodes of Buffy happened when he let the genre-play fall away. I think it would be interesting to see him try to make a not-obviously-genre feature film, perhaps a low budget one.

    1. Bryan,

      Keeping this short as I’m traveling:

      Yeah, Whedon and script doctoring: I bet he did embed himself into it without much work.

      Glad my sense of his work rings true. I’m not anti-him… Miss Jiwaku and I are watching Buffy (it’s my 2nd time straight through) and I’ve loving it mostly. But yeah, while I love how he uses genre to talk about stuff that might not otherwise get handled well in a TV show, sometimes it’s when he drops the genre trappings that things get really amazing.

      I think it’d be great to see him do something not-obviously-genre too. Or, hell, just approach genre in a way we haven’t really see him do yet. (Though, then again, though I didn’t hate Dollhouse, it does suggest maybe he’s avoiding more serious treatments of SF for a reason; it wasn’t his best effort.)

  4. “his signature humor is all over that film’s script;”

    I would say so! Basically, “The Cabin in the Woods,” is a straight up episode of Whedon’s and Greenwalt’s masterpiece, Angel without Angel, of course, but utilizing the wonderful settings, and pretty much exact back story of just whatWolfram & Hart is and does in the name of evil and evil gods. It was almost like I was watching seasons 5 and 4 of Angel all over again except without Angel’s son, Connor (now an actor on Mad Men).

    Crud, now I guess I will have to start at the beginning and watch this great television program once again. I do wonder though if Whedon purposely used the Sony building in Culver City as a metaphor for evil though when using it for the setting of Wolfram & Hart.

    Anyway, I don’t find it hard to believe that the movie might have been an “Angel” script that was meant for season 6 but never aired due to its cancellation at the end of Season 5, especially as Goddard was one of the main writers during that final season. There are many who were upset at the way season 5 ended as they saw it as part 1 of a 2 part episode, so this definitely could have been a continuation the “Angel” universe.

    1. John,

      Sorry, with all the links this ended up in spam. Never having watched Angel (more than a few S1 episodes back when it was first on TV), I had no idea about any of this. Interesting. I have Angel queued up for when we finish watching Buffy through to the end. But that’s a good while away yet.

  5. “Angel” is a lot more difficult to get into than “Buffy,” especially as the first 13 episodes of the first season were really hit or miss (mostly miss in my opinion), but the season ends on a strong note as Faith pays Angel a visit and the end of Season 2 is when “Angel” really comes into its own with the addition of Fred (Amy Acker). This is also when Daniel Dae Kim joined the series as a Wolfram & Hart lawyer.

    1. Yeah, I watched S1E1 and was not really moved by the whole conceit of Angel’s being recruited to remind people the world is not a bad place, to have hope and a little faith, etc. It was a bit too easy for me… and that episode didn’t do much for me anyway.

      But I’ll give it a go anyway. I have to say, after watching later Seasons of Buffy, the first season (and even the second) seem kind of rough too. (And, likewise, I must say it was only in second season that Dollhouse actually interested me at all; in fact, I kinda wish they’d stuck with the future-plot stuff from the endings of each season, as that was the only stuff that really, truly grabbed me.)

      1. I think the first season was hastily thrown together to strike while the “Buffy” iron was hot and it shows, especially when you consider that two main cast members didn’t even make it through that first season.

        Luckily, the addition of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (played by Alexis Denisof) and Winifred ‘Fred’ Burkle (played by Amy Acker) helped to raise that IMBd rating to 8.1. Sadly, the actor who played Doyle died of a drug overdose not long after being let go from the series.

        1. Ah, yeah, I guess I’ll have to see what happens. I like the character of Wesley Wyndham-Price well enough; his fizzled romance with Cordelia on Buffy was amusing, anyway.

          That thing about striking when the iron is hot: yeah, it’s a tough thing: you’re trying to keep one franchise going, then another spins off: do you split your energies? Work twice as much? (Which is often impossible.) It’s really hard. I can relate insofar as one of our almost-viral videos was supposed to be followed up quickly, and then life just sort of intervened. (Not that it won’t be followed up, but… less quickly than would have been optimal.)

          1. Not wanting to give away too much, you will find that Alexis Denisof is a great actor by the end of “Angel,” and that at least one of his heartbreaking romances will really throw you for a loop.

          2. Hey,

            For some reason your comment about Denisof ended up in the spam. Not sure why, maybe the phrase “heartbreaking romances” tripped the spam filter? (?!?!?)

            Anyway, okay, will (eventually) give the series a go. Though not now. Too much else to do!

  6. I doubt Whedon’s next film will play in South Korea, but he is returning to his comedic roots. He was a writer on “Rosanne,” his grandfather wrote for numerous hit TV programs (The Dick Van Dyke Show , The Andy Griffith Show, The Wonderful World of Disney), and his dad was a writer on some slightly less comedy gems (Benson, Alice, The Golden Girls).

    It’s ought to be interesting to see Nathan and Amy doing Shakespeare.

    1. If you happen not to believe in second chances, watch Whedon’s unaired “Buffy” pilot. It’s amazing just how far he’s come after that horrific first solo television attempt of his. His “The Avengers” will pass the 1.5 billion dollar mark in the next few days while the concluding chapter of Nolan’s Dark Knight Saga might not hit 1 billion for its take.

      1. Well, maybe. I still prefer the latter film to the former, but it’s partly just that I don’t like most of the characters in The Avengers, and thought at least one of the prequel movies stank (Thor). None of that is really Whedon’s fault, though.

    2. Interesting. I tend to have mixed feelings about modern retellings of Shakespeare — it always depends on what they do with the language. I often feel it’s better to have them speak Shakey English in period settings, but something more modern in a modern setting.

      I also kind of feel like it’s time for people to start making films out of some of the plays of Shakey’s contemporaries. I haven’t seen many film adaptations in English of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, and I imagine other work from the time deserves some attention. The canonization of Shakespeare alone is something that always gets me wondering what other good stuff was being produced then. (There has to be other good stuff, though I haven’t explored.)

      It’s weird, though, how even in Medieval Lit courses we explore a range of texts, but for Elizabethan Lit, often Shakespeare gets taught alone, as a major subject of its own. Ah well… more things to research and read when I am not busy teaching.

  7. Whedon is in the news again today. It looks like his next TV venture will be S.H.I.E.L.D. He will write the pilot, but he won’t be the showrunner for what that’s worth.

        1. Well, no, but that’s like saying it can’t be any worse than contracting giardia. Technically, probably not true, but a very low place to set the bar. (Judging by your Youtube clip, that is; I haven’t seen that awful-looking mess myself.)

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