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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.

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