CAPTIVE STATE (2019) – Science Fiction Thriller Struggles Mightily To Tell Its Story

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CAPTIVE STATE (2019) is a new science fiction thriller with some really neat ideas and a remarkable story to tell, but sadly— very sadly—- it also has a script that struggles mightily to tell it.

The movie gets off to a busy yet intriguing start with a bunch of information hurled at its audience immediately. There’s been an alien invasion which has completely overwhelmed humankind, and the governments of the world have capitulated power to these superior beings who now control the Earth.  As a result, the “haves” — people with power and money— have gotten stronger as they’ve been given positions of leadership, while the “have-nots” have gotten weaker, as they’ve been thrust into ghettos and hard-working mining jobs, which happens to be a perfect metaphor for what some say has been happening in the real world for the past few decades.

But all hope is not lost, as there are resistance fighters constantly operating in the shadows with the express purpose of taking down these all-powerful aliens. These resistance fighters believe the only thing the aliens are interested in is draining the Earth of its resources. They believe the aliens’ end game is the destruction of the planet, even if the “haves” who enjoy plenty of power now refuse to see it.

So, the plot of the movie focuses on a small band of resistant fighters in Chicago as they work on a plan to strike back at their alien oppressors, while one of the “haves,” police detective William Mulligan (John Goodman) does everything in his power to uncover this resistant cell and destroy them.

I really liked the idea behind CAPTIVE STATE. I enjoyed its story of resistance fighters trying to strike back against an all-powerful alien race which had been ruling the world for nearly a decade. I enjoyed the obvious symbolic references to what’s going on in today’s world, where people feel increasingly oppressed and powerless.

But there are far more things with CAPTIVE STATE that I didn’t like. Let’s start with the way it tells its story. The screenplay by Erica Beeney and director Rupert Wyatt seems to be purposefully confusing. Characters speak, and their meanings aren’t clear. They make phone calls and send messages in code, but the audience doesn’t know why nor do they understand the meanings.

Most of the movie is a collection of really cool looking scenes showing people slyly plotting resistance while cop William Mulligan hunts them down. It all looks good and sounds good with some effective music by Rob Simonsen, but very little of it makes sense. The writers forgot to include the audience on what’s going on. It’s one of those films where I’m sure the audience is going to spend most of the time scratching their heads rather than enjoying a suspenseful story.

It reminded me of a 1960s British spy thriller where the screenplay was purposefully obscure, or a movie which back in the old days would have been aired after midnight because prime time audiences wouldn’t have had the patience for its lack of narrative. Some folks will no doubt absolutely love CAPTIVE STATE and won’t see its narrative woes as a weakness, but for me, I prefer a story that is told in a more organized fashion than the one told here.

There are other problems as well. The biggest one for me is there wasn’t a clear protagonist. The central characters in the movie are two brothers, Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders) and Rafe Drummond (Jonathan Majors) whose parents were killed by the aliens in the film’s opening moments. Rafe has become the face of the Chicago resistance, but since his character is officially dead, he lives in the shadows and is barely in the movie.

The main character is supposed to be Gabriel, the younger brother, as he’s also a person the police are interested in, as they believe he can lead them to the resistance. But even though Gabriel is on-screen more than Rafe, he’s not developed as a character either.

Then there’s cop William Mulligan as played by John Goodman, who gruffly goes through the motions hunting down resistance fighters without showing any emotion.

Speaking of those resistance fighters, there’s a whole bunch of them, none of whom we ever really get to know or care about.

Then there’s the aliens themselves, which we hardly see. When we do see them, they reminded me of the types of creatures seen in the CLOVERFIELD universe, but we really don’t see much of them at all here.

There is little that is visually stimulating or memorable in CAPTIVE STATE, nothing memorable like those huge hovering ships in DISTRICT 9 (2009), a film that did a better job telling its alien occupation story. There were also shades of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End here, with its story and theme of humans dealing with the occupation of a superior alien race, but the novel dealt with it in ways that are far superior to how it is handled in this movie.

The cast here also doesn’t do a whole lot, and a lot of the problem is the screenplay which really doesn’t develop the characters. John Goodman is okay as William Mulligan, but it is largely a one note performance. Unlike his role in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) where he knocked it out of the park playing quite the frightening character, Goodman is stuck playing a man who is purposely unemotional for reasons that become clear later in the story.

Ashton Sanders, who starred in the Oscar-winning MOONLIGHT (2016), is decent enough as Gabriel, the character who should have been the main focus here had this film had a better script. There just really aren’t any defining moments for Gabriel or ones that allow Sanders to truly shine in the role.

Jonathan Majors is allowed to do even less as older brother Rafe. There are a lot of solid actors in supporting roles here, but none of them get to do much of anything. Even Vera Farmiga can’t save the day, as her role as a mysterious prostitute has little impact while she’s on screen. Now, her character is important, as revealed later on, but that’s how a lot of this movie is. Important details are relayed after characters are gone or situations have already happened. It just doesn’t make for satisfying storytelling.

Even the end, when it’s obvious what’s happening, and what direction the plot is taking, the movie doesn’t give the audience the benefit of a satisfying conclusion. It leaves things just a bit obscure. The trouble is, what’s happening is not obscure, so why not just show the audience this instead of playing games and keeping important plot points hidden just for the sake of trying to be creative? It’s a case of trying too hard to make a thought-provoking offbeat thriller. Sometimes straightforward storytelling is just plain better.

Director Rupert Wyatt does a nice job creating quick intense scenes of resistance fighters organizing and plotting but struggles with the big-ticket items like grand cinematic sequences and building suspense. Probably the best sequence in the movie is the major caper by the resistance to attack the aliens at Soldier Field.  This sequence works well, even if its payoff isn’t all that satisfying, but other than this, there’s not a whole lot that’s memorable about this movie.

For a science fiction thriller, it’s not visually satisfying at all. As I said, there are no memorable images as found in DISTRICT 9, and the script is far inferior to the stories, dialogue, and character development found in recent science fiction films like ANNIHILATION (2018) and ARRIVAL (2016).

ANNIHILATION and ARRIVAL also had strong female leads and supporting characters. The women in CAPTIVE STATE are few and far between, and none of the major characters are women.

Rupert Wyatt also directed RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011), the first of the APES reboots, and a movie I enjoyed more than CAPTIVE STATE.

I really wanted to like CAPTIVE STATE. In fact, after its first five minutes, I was even more interested in the story it was about to tell, but what followed was a narrative that clearly struggled to move this intriguing story forward. Its characters were not developed, and as such there really wasn’t anyone for the audience to identify with or root for. And the alien threat was barely shown and hardly explored.

So, at the end of the day, while I certainly did not hate CAPTIVE STATE, I left the theater disappointed.

A better script could have made CAPTIVE STATE a captivating science fiction thriller, but it’s clear that this film did not have that script. The end result is a movie with impressive ideas and symbolism but with such a muddled narrative that its audience will be hard-pressed to enjoy them.

—END—

 

THE HORROR JAR: The Special Effects of Willis O’Brien

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Kong battles planes from atop the Empire State Building thanks to the movie magic of Willis O’Brien in KING KONG (1933)

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at all things horror.  Up today the films of Willis O’Brien, or more specifically, the films in which O’Brien’s amazing stop motion animation effects graced the screen.

With the Thanksgiving holiday around the corner, O’Brien is on my mind, because years ago, for whatever reason, a popular triple feature on Thanksgiving day used to be KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), and while actor Robert Armstrong appeared in all three of these giant monkey movies, the true common denominator among this trio of films is special effects master Willis O’Brien, who did the effects for all three films.

With that in mind, here’s a brief look at the magical career of Willis O’Brien:

THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK: A PREHISTORIC TRAGEDY (1915) – directed by Willis O’Brien. O’Brien’s first screen credit, a five-minute comedy short. He both directed this one and created the stop motion effects.

THE LOST WORLD (1925) – the first film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale about a land where dinosaurs still exist remains arguably the best film version of Conan Doyle’s novel.  O’Brien’s special effects are wonderful and a nice precursor to the work he would do eight years later on KING KONG (1933). The conclusion of the film where the Brontosaurus goes on a rampage through the streets of London is a major highlight.

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Willis O’Brien and one of his friends.

KING KONG (1933) – one of the greatest movies of all time, the original KING KONG is required viewing for all movie buffs. With apologies to actors Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot, who are all very good in this movie, to directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and to screenwriters James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, the reason KING KONG remains a masterpiece, and the reason to see this one over and over again, is the stop motion animation effects by Willis O’Brien.

The special effects in KING KONG are nothing short of spectacular. They hold up well even today. The level of depth on Kong’s island is unbelievable, and the attention to detail uncanny. O’Brien’s team used painted glass plates to create the plush dense forest backgrounds, and many scenes feature human actors and animated creatures in the same shot creating a seamless world that looks as authentic as it is imaginative.

Stop motion effects required the use of miniature models— Kong was 18 inches tall— moved by technicians one film frame at a time, an arduous process that would take an entire afternoon just to complete one second of screen time.

Of course, O’Brien also enjoyed some luck. He feared he would be fired when in test shots he could see the imprints of his technicians’ hands on Kong’s fur. Yet when the producers watched the film they applauded him for his attention to detail for making Kong’s fur move in the wind.

In short, with his animation techniques, O’Brien gave birth to one of the mightiest screen monsters of all time, King Kong, a character who still appears in movies even today.

KING KONG also boasts a memorable music score by Max Steiner.

SON OF KONG (1933) – rushed sequel to KING KONG can best be described as KING KONG LITE. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) returns to Kong’s island in search of treasure and discovers Kong’s less ferocious and somewhat friendly son there.  Light and amusing. O’Brien’s special effects, while not as mind-blowing as his work on the original, remain a highlight.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1049) – Kong creators Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper return with yet another giant ape story, again starring Robert Armstrong, who plays a Carl Denham clone named Max O’Hara. The film is most notable for O’Brien’s protegé stepping up to do most of the stop motion animation effects here. His protege? Ray Harryhausen, who would go on to create the best stop motion effects aside from KING KONG over the next thirty years in a career that spanned from this movie until the early 1980s. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is actually a much better film than SON OF KONG, yet it did not perform well at the box office, and plans for a sequel JOE MEETS TARZAN were never completed.

THE BLACK SCORPION  (1957) -standard 1950s giant monster science fiction film, this time featuring giant scorpions in Mexico City. Decent Willis O’Brien special effects.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) – radiation again is to blame for awaking yet another dinosaur in this typical 1950s giant monster tale. Not O’Brien’s finest hour. The special effects are okay but are clearly inferior to the work that Ray Harryhausen was doing at the time, with films like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958).

THE LOST WORLD (1960) – O’Brien’s career comes full circle with this remake of the 1925 silent film, this one directed by Irwin Allen. Okay movie, with a decent cast that included Michael Rennie, Jill St. John, David Hedison, and Claude Rains. This one should have been better, mainly because O’Brien’s work wasn’t even used here!

Huh?

O’Brien was hired to work on the film because Irwin Allen wanted to use stop motion animation effects for the dinosaurs, but budget constraints forced Allen to use real lizards instead, which led to far inferior special effects. As a result, although given effects technician credit, O’Brien’s work on this film was largely restricted to conceptual drawings which were never used.

O’Brien passed away on November 8, 1962 from a heart attack at the age of 76.

Willis O’Brien will be forever remembered for creating some of the most incredible special effects in motion picture history for his work on KING KONG (1933).

And you can’t go wrong with O’Brien’s giant ape trilogy, KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949). Should these be playing on a TV near you this Thanksgiving, be sure to check them out.

That’s it for now. Thanks for joining me for this edition of THE HORROR JAR where we celebrated the career of special effects mastermind Willis H. O’Brien, and I hope you join me again next time when we’ll look at other topics regarding horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

READY PLAYER ONE (2018) – Cinematic References Best Part of this Fantasy Tale

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I’m not a gamer. I don’t play video games, and I haven’t read the book  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and so my interest in seeing READY PLAYER ONE (2018) the new fantasy adventure by director Steven Spielberg, was purely for cinematic reasons.  That’s right. I saw this one simply because I wanted to see the movie.

So, as a movie, how does READY PLAYER ONE size up? Not bad.  For the most part, it’s a fairly entertaining two-plus hours at the movies, even if it’s telling a story that is about as compelling as a game of Donkey Kong.

The best part of READY PLAYER ONE is all the cultural cinematic references. After all, where else can you find King Kong, MechaGodzilla, and the Iron Giant all in the same movie?  Where else can you have your characters enter a world based on Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980)?  The answer is READY PLAYER ONE! These and other references and nods [including to ALIEN (1979) and LOST IN SPACE (1965-68)]  are what kept me most interested in this movie, long after I lost interest in its story.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in 2045, a time when life is so hard people need to escape from reality, and they do so by entering the OASIS, a virtual reality world created by the brilliant James Halliday (Mark Rylance) where pretty much anything can happen. You can be whoever you want to be and do whatever it is you want to do. So, Wade plays in this video game world as a handsomer version of himself known as Parzival.

Halliday has since died, but he’s left a challenge to all the players in the OASIS: he has left three keys inside his virtual reality world, and the player who finds all three keys will unlock the game’s secret and become controller of the entire OASIS.  Wade and his friends make it their goal to do just that, but they’d better hurry because an evil company led by a man named Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) has other ideas.

And that’s the story.  This one’s certainly not going to win any awards for Best Screenplay, that’s for sure.

Visually READY PLAYER ONE is a lot of fun, and Spielberg keeps the action fast, bright, and playful.  I have no problem with this part of the movie.

The cast is okay, even though they don’t have a whole lot to work with. Tye Sheridan is decent enough in the lead role as Wade/Parzival, but the character as written in this movie is rather dull, and Sheridan doesn’t really bring this young man to life.  Both his parents have died, yet this grief barely resonates in the story.

Olivia Cooke fares better as Samantha, who becomes Wade’s best friend and eventual love interest.  Samantha is also a kick-ass character who is much more interesting than Wade.  I like Cooke a lot and have been a fan since I first saw her on the TV series BATES MOTEL (2013-17) and also in the Hammer horror movie THE QUIET ONES (2014).

Ben Mendelsohn plays the cardboard villain Sorrento who acts like he walked out of an old Scooby Doo cartoon.  Mendelsohn played a much more effective villain, Orson Krennic, in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

I did enjoy T.J. Miller as Sorrento’s henchman I-ROk, as he provides the film’s best bits of comic relief.  Miller was recently in DEADPOOL ((2016), but I always remember him as Hud, the frightened yet frequently hilarious guy behind the camera in CLOVERFIELD (2008).

Mark Rylance, either hidden under lots of hair or CGI effects in the OASIS, is quiet and unassuming as the gaming genius Halliday, but Simon Pegg as Halliday’s business partner Ogden Morrow is little more than an afterthought.  These two fine actors really don’t get a whole lot of chances to do much in this movie.

The screenplay by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, who wrote the novel, is straightforward and pretty much tells a by-the-numbers plot.  Teens have to save the world from an evil meddling company while learning about the man who created their favorite game and about themselves as well.

At times, the film feels like a cross between TRON (1982) and WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971). In fact, it’s been reported that Spielberg had approached Gene Wilder to play Halliday, before the iconic comedic actor passed away.  Its nonstop video game landscape is mixed with a syrupy sweet nostalgia tale that makes for lightweight fare, as opposed to a hard-hitting fantasy adventure.

There’s not a lot of memorable dialogue either. And the action scenes, while visually stunning, were pretty tame.

READY PLAYER ONE is chock-full of fun cinematic, video game, and cultural references, especially from the 1980s, and it’s a treat for the eyes, as it’s full of colorful alternate reality landscapes, but its story is meh and often falls flat.  For example, for nearly its entire 140 minute run time, we are immersed inside its virtual reality world, yet at the end, we are treated to a message that says the real world is still more important and interesting, which after all that came before it simply sounds hollow and forced.

READY PLAYER ONE is a colorful diversion if you have 140 minutes to spare.  If not, feel free to spend some time outside instead.  In the real world.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

ANNIHILATION (2018) – Natalie Portman Leads All-Female Team in this Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Adventure

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The all woman team in ANNIHILATION (2018)

While superhero movies have captured all the hype and box office receipts in recent years, science fiction films have quietly enjoyed a resurgence of their own. The last few years has seen a decent number of science fiction films landing at the cinema, most of them very good high quality affairs.

You can go ahead and add ANNIHILATION (2018) to that list.

ANNIHILATION was written and directed by Alex Garland, the man who also wrote and directed EX MACHINA (2014), one of those recent high quality science fiction flicks, a thought-provoking thriller about artificial intelligence.  Here in ANNIHILATION, Garland takes on a topic that is rather innovative and original.

In ANNIHILATION, biologist and college professor Lena (Natalie Portman) is dealing with the absence of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), an army officer who’s been missing in action for over a year. One night, Kane returns home, but he’s different, distant, but before Lena can find out why, Kane becomes violently ill.  She rushes him to the hospital, but before they can get there, the ambulance is intercepted by the military, and both Kane and Lena are extracted from the vehicle.

When Lena awakes, she finds herself being questioned by a psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Lena learns the truth of her husband’s mission, that he and his unit had been sent in to investigate a mysterious area called the “Shimmer.” Numerous parties had been sent in, and none had returned, until Kane.

When Lena learns that Dr. Ventress is leading an all female team— a scientific decision because so far the investigators had all been male and they had all failed— into the Shimmer, she decides to join them, believing she owes it to her husband to learn what happened to him and what exactly is going on inside the bizarre area.

The Shimmer began when an unknown object struck a lighthouse on the south coast of the United States, and afterwards the lighthouse began to emit an unusual aura which over the course of the year continued to grow, and Dr. Ventress predicts that unless it is stopped it will continue until it covers cities, states, and eventually, everywhere.  The Shimmer looks like a huge oily wall which distorts one’s vision, and so you can’t really see beyond it.  Those who have entered, have not returned, except, of course, for Kane.

When Lena and the all women team enter, they immediately realize that they have entered a place where the laws of nature have changed, and it’s up to them to find out how and why and to survive its hostile environment.

ANNIHILATION tells a fascinating tale that works on multiple levels. Sure, the thought-provoking science fiction ideas are there, in this case some innovative thinking involving refraction and DNA, but ANNIHILATION works even better as an adventure and a thriller.

There are some very exciting sequences here involving some frightening creatures which live inside the Shimmer, in particular an enormous crocodile and later an extremely intense sequence involving something that was once a bear. There are some definite edge-of-your seat moments in this one.

My favorite part though is the female cast.  It’s a fresh take on a science fiction adventure tale like this to have the main players all be women.

Natalie Portman leads the way with a strong performance as Lena. She gets to express two sides of this character.  There’s the cold, clinical biologist side, as she investigates the strange phenomena inside the Shimmer, and since Lena is ex-military, having spent several years in the army, we get to see her no-nonsense kick-ass side, as she takes on the formidable creatures inside this strange land.  Portman excels at both.

I like Portman a lot, and it was fun to see her in this action role after her meticulous performance as Jackie Kennedy in JACKIE (2016).

Jennifer Jason Leigh is also excellent as Dr. Ventress.  As the leader of the group, she is as tough as nails in her determination to reach the lighthouse in the hope of resolving this dilemma. While Leigh has enjoyed a long career, she’s turned in some particularly impressive supporting performances of late, including memorable roles in GOOD TIME (2017) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015).

The other three women are also notable.  Tuva Novotny as Cass, Gina Rodriguez as Anya, and Tessa Thompson as Josie round out the cast in impressive fashion. Thompson was also excellent starring opposite Michael B. Jordan in CREED (2015).

And Oscar Isaac is effective as Kane, Lena’s husband who’s not quite the same once he comes home.  Isaac also starred in Alex Garland’s previous science fiction flick, EX MACHINA, and he’s known now for his recurring role as Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies.

ANNIHILATION is not perfect. It’s slow at times, more so during its third act.  Early on, when the audience is first learning about the Shimmer, the story is so engrossing that pacing is not a problem.  But once we start to get answers, things slow down a bit as the film moves towards its conclusion.

The CGI effects are uneven.  Some of the creatures look fearsome, while others look fake.

The story works if you don’t think about it a whole lot. I couldn’t help but think that if such an event were really happening, there’d be more of a military presence around the Shimmer.  We’re led to believe that there is, but it’s not something we see much of. In fact, we see hardly anyone other than Dr. Ventress and her team.

Still, I enjoyed the screenplay by director Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. The dialogue is strong and the concepts explored in the story rather fascinating.

And the film looks stunning. The mind-boggling world inside the Shimmer contains some memorable cinematic images.

The whole film has a sort of LOST (2004-2010) vibe to it, and if you mix in a little bit of ZOO (2015-2017) with INTERSTELLAR (2014) and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (any version you’d like) you’ve got ANNIHILATION, a nice mix of edge-of-your-seat thrills and thought-provoking science fiction.

But its strongest attribute is its all-female team, which by far is the most refreshing part of this exciting fantasy adventure.

—-END—

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) – Ambitious Sequel Overlong and Lifeless

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I guess I’m just not a fan of the BLADE RUNNER movies.

I was never all that into the original BLADE RUNNER (1982) film starring Harrison Ford and directed by Ridley Scott, based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? —- now, the novel I do like— that has a huge loyal following among science fiction fans.  The 1982 film just never moved me.

Now, here comes BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017),  starring Ryan Gosling and again Harrison Ford, a bigger and badder sequel to the 1982 movie, receiving high praise from both critics and fans alike.

I’ve finally been swayed, right?  This film is so good I’ve finally overcome my apathy for BLADE RUNNER, right?

Wrong.

Which is why I said, I guess I just don’t like these movies.

“K” (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner, the name given to officers who hunt down and “retire” (yes, that means “kill”) replicants, the artificial life forms that the powers that be fear because they are becoming too human.  His latest target is somewhat of an unusual one, and it leads him on a search for Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the blade runner and main character in the first BLADE RUNNER movie, who’s been missing for thirty years.

Denis Villeneuve directed BLADE RUNNER 2049, which is another reason I’m surprised I didn’t like this one more than I did.  Villeneuve directed ARRIVAL (2016) and SICARIO (2015), two movies I liked a lot, and PRISONERS (2013), which was also very good.

There’s no shortage of ambition here.  This is a massive movie, filled with eye-popping special effects and a futuristic landscape that rivals the one created by Ridley Scott in the original.  All the technical stuff is there and works.

The story also has a lot to say.  Hampton Fancher and Michael Green wrote the screenplay, and it covers a lot of ground.  The best part of the Philip K. Dick novel is the exploration of the line between human and replicant, and the idea that a thinking sentient being, albeit an artificially created one, would fight for its own survival and not take kindly to the idea that it had an expiration date.  This has always been my favorite part of the BLADE RUNNER universe, and it’s more applicable today as great strides have been made in the field of artificial intelligence, and I believe that soon this concept will leave the realm of science fiction and become science fact.

And yet the problem I had with the original BLADE RUNNER, I have again here with BLADE RUNNER 2049, and that is the film has no soul.  It’s cold and lifeless, and its story, in spite of the scientific and ethical ramifications, fails to resonate.  Nothing that happens in this movie moved me one iota.

Which is too bad because a lot happens in this movie.  So much that it takes a whopping 2 hours and 43 minutes to tell its story.  That’s a long time to sit through a movie that doesn’t resonate, which is another reason I really did not enjoy BLADE RUNNER 2049.

There were parts I did like.  Its opening scene, for example, where “K” hunts down a replicant, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) is a good one.  The fight sequence between the two is a rough and violent as they get.

Nearly all the scenes between “K” and his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) are not only watchable but for me were flat-out the best scenes in the movie, but their storyline is secondary to the main one in the film.  The scene in particular where technology enables Joi to enter the body of a prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) so she can physically love “K” is probably the best scene in the film

And the first encounter between “K” and Rick Deckard is memorable, but it’s an hour and 40 minutes into the movie before this meeting takes place.

So, for me, pacing was certainly an issue, but the larger problem was that the story never grabbed me, the characters never won me over, and so I sat there for nearly three hours being visually stimulated but that was about it.  The story and characters fell flat for me and pretty much bored me to tears.

I like Ryan Gosling a lot, and he’s certainly good here, but “K” is just such dull boring character I just never found myself all that excited about him.

In a strange way, I actually enjoyed Harrison Ford more in this movie than in the original BLADE RUNNER.  It’s too bad he doesn’t show up until 1 hour and 40 minutes into the film.  He’s got some good lines, though, and his character is integral to the main plot and main mystery of this one.

But hands down the two best performances in BLADE RUNNER 2049 belong to two of the women actresses in the film.

First, there’s Ana de Armas as Joi, who happened to be my favorite character in the movie.  Joi is a holographic creation, and yet through de Armas’ performance, she’s more lifelike and possesses more genuine emotion than any other character in the movie.  She previously starred in WAR DOGS (2016) and HANDS OF STONE (2016),  a film about boxer Roberto Duran that was panned by critics but was one of my favorite movies that year.  Ana de Armas was excellent in HANDS OF STONE, and she’s better here in BLADE RUNNER 2049.

Then there’s Sylvia Hoeks as Luv.  She’s the most effective villain in the movie.  It’s a dominating performance, one that I enjoyed more than Jared Leto’s.  He plays the main baddie in the film, Niander Wallace, and he just doesn’t resonate.  While I enjoyed Hoeks’s scenes, Leto’s scenes sadly put me to sleep.

Robin Wright has a couple of compelling moments as the stone cold police Lieutenant Joshi, and there are some other veteran actors on hand who add to the mix as well. There’s Barkhad Abdi, the Oscar-nominated actor for CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) who we just saw in GOOD TIME (2017), and there’s Lennie James, who plays Morgan on TV’s THE WALKING DEAD.

And both Edward James Olmos and Sean Young reprise their roles from the original BLADE RUNNER, but their presence is reduced to nothing more than brief cameos.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 is ambitious, cinematic, and loud, but it’s also cold, lifeless, and terribly long and dull, which is a shame because its main premise, the examination of the line between replicants and humans, and its exploration of the idea that artificially created replicants are so close to life that it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between them and humans, which ultimately leads to the discussion of just what it is that constitutes life, is a thought-provoking idea that is worthy of an epic movie.

Unfortunately, BLADE RUNNER 2049 isn’t that movie.

And that’s because while technologically it scores points on all fronts, emotionally, it’s as barren as its futuristic landscape, filled with eye-popping visuals and ear-shattering noises, but without any life whatsoever.

The replicants deserve better.

—END—

 

Travel through time with TIME FRAME, my Debut Science Fiction Novel

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time frame cover

If you like time travel stories and exciting science fiction adventures, you might enjoy my novel TIME FRAME.

It’s my debut science fiction novel and it’s still available both as an EBook from NeconEbooks at http://www.neconebooks.com., and as a print paperback edition at https://www.createspace.com/5487293, or at Amazon.com.

I wrote TIME FRAME with the spirit of time travel movies and TV shows in mind, films like THE TIME MACHINE (1960), TIME AFTER TIME (1979), and any number of STAR TREK episodes.  If you enjoy time travel adventures, chance are you’ll enjoy TIME FRAME.

Writing TIME FRAME was a challenge because it’s a story with multiple timelines and I had to make sure that by the story’s end that they all made sense.  I think they do.  I also wanted to take things as far as possible, to write a story where I took those traditional time travel tropes and blew them out of the water.  Not sure if I succeeded, but the story does include a large explosion on the high seas.

I also didn’t want my science fiction tale to be cold and stoic.  I wanted heated and emotional, which is why I wrote as my main characters a close family, with the thought in mind:  how far would you go to protect your family?  Would you break the rules of time travel to save your loved ones?

This one also started with a single idea. I had recently lost my own grandfather, who I was very close to, and I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that I just wanted to see him one more time.  And so I came up with the single scene of a young man opening his front door and finding his grandfather standing there looking perfectly normal, which the man knew had to be impossible because his grandfather was dead.  This scene was the genesis for TIME FRAME, and I built the story around that, as I thought about possible scenarios that could make this scene true.  What could account for a man who had been dead for several years returning to his loved ones looking happy and healthy again?  The answer became the novel TIME FRAME.

TIME FRAME remains available as an Ebook and can be ordered for $2.99 at www.neconebooks.com.

You can also order a print paperback edition for $14.99 at https://www.createspace.com/5487293, or at Amazon.com, or you can order it directly through me by sending me an email at mjarruda33@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

NECON 36 – The Most Electrifying NECON Yet!

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Necon 36 photo by Tony Tremblay

Panel audience at NECON 36.  Photo by Tony Tremblay.

NECON 36- July 21-24, 2016

Every summer, a group of writers and readers descend upon Roger Williams Convention Center in Bristol, Rhode Island for a writer’s convention unlike any other, NECON.

What makes NECON so special is that in addition to the first-rate writers’ panels, there is also ample time for socializing, meaning that you’ll have access to authors that you just don’t get anywhere else.  It’s the most laid back and casual con going.

I’ve been going to NECON since 2001.  This year’s NECON 36, was the most electrifying yet— literally!

THURSDAY July 21, 2016

Registration opened at 2:00 at the Roger Williams Convention Center on Thursday, July 21, 2016.  Authors Dan Foley and Jason and Jil Salzarulo hosted the first event, the Necon Primer for Newbies, an informal information session on what Necon is all about, for those first-timers, and this year there were quite a few folks attending Necon for the first time.  That’s a big reason why this year’s Necon was sold out, as attendance reached the capped number of 200 Necon Campers.  I did not attend this event, since I’m not a newbie, but I heard it was very successful.

At 10:00 the famous Saugie roast was held, where the campers partake in that famous grilled hot dog found only in Rhode Island.  For me, this first night is always special, as I get to see familar faces I haven’t seen since last year.  In this case it was extra fun hanging out with both L.L. Soares and Pete Dudar, as they both missed last year’s Necon.  I also got to see old friends Paul McNally, Morven Westfield, and Daniel and Trista Robichaud, who I hadn’t seen in about seven years!

FRIDAY July 22, 2016

With fellow Cinema Knife Fighters L.L. Soares, Nick Cato, Paul McMahon, Pete Dudar, and newcomer Catherine Scully, I took part in the 10:00 Kaffeeklatsch:  The World Died Streaming:  The Year in Film in Theaters and Online.  This was our annual movie panel, which is always well attended, where we discuss the movies we’ve seen this past year.  There were tons of recommendations, but the hot topic this year wasn’t a movie but a TV show, as everyone was talking about the new Netflix TV show, STRANGER THINGS.  And it wasn’t just on our movie panel.  I think I heard STRANGER THINGS mentioned on nearly every panel I attended this year!  It definitely was the highest recommended show of the weekend.

Necon 36 MichaelArrudaandLLSoares photo by Nick Cato

Yours truly and L.L. Soares at NECON 36.  Photo by Nick Cato.

As usual, we also received plenty of recommendations from Craig Shaw Gardner and Barbara Gardner.

After lunch, I attended the 1:00 panel The World Died Screaming:  Apocalyptic SF, Horror, and Fantasy, moderated by Douglas Wynne, and featuring Joe Hill, James Moore, Craig DiLouie, Lynne Hansen, and Mark Morris.  This panel focused on writing about the end of the world, especially in terms of the zombie apocalypse.  The point was made that these types of stories are popular because they resonate with people’s own fear of dying.

I next attended the 2:00 panel Not Dead Yet:  The State of Publishing Today, moderated by Matt Schwartz, and featuring Gina Wachtel, John Douglas, Sandra Kasturi, Ginjer Buchanan, and Jaime Levine.  The talk here centered on the Ebook trend which, rather than obliterating the traditional book publishing industry as some had predicted, has settled in nicely as a balanced alternative.  Ebooks and traditional print books seem to be coexisting together agreeably.  One area of growth in recent years that was not predicted was the growth of the audio book, which continues to grow as a market.

There was also discussion on the use of social media by authors to promote themselves and how today’s authors are extremely media savvy.

The 4:00 panel, The Scream of a Distant Sun:  Mixing SF and Horror, moderated by Brett Savory, and featuring Don D’Ammassa, Patrick Freivald, Erin Underwood, Linda Addison, and Gordon Linzner was a fascinating and highly entertaining and informative look at the way horror and science fiction go hand in hand, or not.  There was a lot of talk on getting the science right in a science fiction story, as getting the science wrong is a major turn off, so the advice to writers was do your homework.

There was talk about how movies like ALIEN (1979) while considered both horror and science fiction, are mostly horror, since its story about a monster can take place anywhere, not just in space. In pure science fiction, you can’t take the science out of the story.

There was also discussion on Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, originally considered a horror novel but in ensuing years it has been also classified as science fiction.

Don D’Ammassa, who with his vast personal library is one of the most well read people on the planet, is always a joy to listen to.  As usual, his comments were on the money and pointedly informative.  I could listen to him all day.

After dinner, it was time for the Official Necon Toast by Toastmasters Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory.  Tradition dictates that this toast pokes fun at the Guests of Honor, and Kasturi and Savory did not disappoint in this regard.  My favorite line came from Kasturi, who when speaking of Joe Hill, remarked that “it would have been nice had your dad showed up- Benny Hill.”  Of course, Joe’s real-life famous dad goes by a different last name, King.  Yep.  That King.

This was followed by Necon Update with Mike Myers (no, not that Mike Myers!) at 7:30, and Myers was funny as always.

After the Update, it was time for the NECON HALL OF FAME INDUCTION CEREMONY.  The recipients this year were authors Stephen Bissette and Linda Addison.

At 8:00 it was time for the Meet the Authors Party, that special time at the con when you can buy books from your favorite authors and have them signed up close and personal.  No surprise, the biggest line this year was for Joe Hill.

I set up shop next to fellow authors and friends Nick Cato, L.L. Soares, Peter Dudar, Dan Keohane, and William Carl.  Always fun to sell and sign a book or two.

After the party it was time to socialize, and I was fortunate enough to sit down and have a long chat  with author Morven Westfield who I hadn’t seen in a few years.  It was great to catch up.  Morven started coming to Necon right around the same time I did, back in 2001.

Remember I called this the most electrifying Necon ever?  I wasn’t just talking about the electricity generated by the authors.  I’m also referring to the wild thunderstorm which descended upon us around 10:00 pm and blew wind-swept rains and insane lightning at us for quite some time.  Perfectly atmospheric!

During this time, I caught up with author Sheri Sebastion-Gabriel, among others.  It was also time for the “Rick Hautala Cigar Tribute” in which a bunch of authors gather around to smoke cigars in honor of Rick, who sadly passed away in 2013.  Rick, a best-selling author, was a Necon fixture.  I always enjoyed talking to Rick and listening to him speak on the panels. Every time I heard him speak I learned something new.  Speaking at the informal but emotional tribute were Rick’s wife Holly Newstein, and Christopher Golden.

The relentless thunderstorm with its brilliant lightning flashes went on into the night, as did the social gatherings, where friends chatted long past midnight—.

 

SATURDAY, July 23, 2016

After breakfast, I caught the 10:00 panel Panel by Panel:  The Peculiar Power of Horror Comics. moderated by Angi Shearstone, and featuring Jason Ciaramella, Rebekah Isaacs, Stephen Bissette, Joe Hill, and James Chambers.  The panel discussed the happy marriage between horror and comics. It also covered some history, explaining that the modern reign of superhero comics owes itself to the ridiculous reports decades ago that erroneously linked horror comics to emotional problems in children.  This led to the outright banning of horror comics in the 1950s.  Superheroes then stepped in to fill the void, and they’ve been going strong ever since.

For my money, the 11:00 panel, Broken on the Outside & In:  Experts Discuss Writing about Physical & Mental Trauma (and Their Effects) may have been the best panel of the weekend.  Moderated by K.H. Vaughn, it featured Karen Deal, Rena Mason, Ellen Williams, Marianne Halbert, and Mercedes Yardley in a fascinating discussion of both physical and mental trauma.  On the physical side, it covered how much punishment a character can really take and survive, and it also discussed when you can get away with exaggerating these things.  For example, in the Marvel superhero films, Tony Stark would be dead from brain injuries from all those impacts in his Iron Man suit, but audiences are perfectly comfortable to let this slide.  We suspend disbelief because this is a superhero story, and we don’t hold the lack of accuracy here against the storytelling.

On the mental side, the bulk of the discussion covered how to write characters with mental illnesses in a realistic way.  Do your homework and research both the illnesses and the treatments, which change from year to year, was the major advice.

There also was a wince-inducing frank discussion of autopsies and all that goes on in an autopsy room.

Great stuff!

After lunch it was time for the Guests of Honor Interview in which Toastmasters Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory interviewed Guests of Honor Joe Hill, Mark Morris, and Laura Anne Gilman. These interviews are always informative and enlightening, and today’s was no exception.

I caught the 2:30 panel Edge of Your Seat:  Pacing and Plotting the Thriller, in which moderator Bracken MacLeod and panelists Megan Hart, Michael Koryta, Chris Irvin, Sephera Giron, and John McIlveen discussed, among other things, how to pace oneself while writing a novel, including the use of outlines.

I missed the next two panels as I got caught up in a discussion about movies with L.L. Soares and Nick Cato that covered a lot of ground, and a lot of time.

After dinner, it was time for the Artists Reception which featured fine art work by the various artists in attendance this year, and also plenty of goodies and coffee.  The art show had a new venue this year, and the set-up was perfect.  Very comfortable with easy viewing access to the paintings and prints.

At 8:00 it was time for the first ever Necon “Pub Quiz” Trivia game, which in reality was a variation of Necon’s infamous “Game Show.”  This time around, volunteers were assembled into teams.  I was on Rebekah Isaac’s team, and we led the competition throughout, due mostly to having the knowledgeable Darrell Schweitzer on our team.  Alas, we finished in second place as we were overtaken in the final round, done in by a bonus round on music.

This was followed by A Very Special Episode which is code for the Necon Roast.  This year’s victim- er, honoree, was author Rio Youers, and he was a really good sport about the whole thing.  Host Jeff Strand did an awesome job, and other speakers included Christopher Golden, James Moore, Joe Hill, Linda Addison, Richard Dansky, and Matt Bechtel, among others.  This year’s roast also featured a new “lightning round” in which 10 folks each delivered a 30 second bit, and I was fortunate enough to be among this new group of ten.

The roast is always a highlight of the weekend.

Afterwards followed late night parties in the quad which go on into the wee hours of the morning, where we gather for the last time as a social group until next year.  The other event tonight was April Hawks shaving her head for charity.

Speaking of charity, this weekend my roommate and New England Horror Writers leader Scott Goudsward had himself “yarn bombed” for charity, as Trisha Wooldridge stitched an insanely ludicrous covering over him over the course of the weekend.  The final product had Scott resembling a long lost crew member of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

Necon 36 Cinema Knife Fight photo by Paul McNally

Cinema Knife Fighters Pete Dudar, Paul McMahon, Nick Cato, myself, L.L. Soares, and Bill Carl gather for a group photo by Paul McNally.  That’s NEHW head honcho Scott Goudsward lurking in the shadows in between Paul & Nick.

 

SUNDAY July 24, 2016

I attended the 10:00 panel Lessons Learned:  Moving from Tyro to Journeyman in which moderator P.D. Cacek and panelists Kristin Dearborn, Scott Goudsward, Dan Keohane, and Megan Arcuri-Moran discussed how they’ve moved on from being newbie writers and have gradually become established writers.  Their advice was on the money and invaluable.

At 11:00 it was the Necon Town Meeting in which awards were distributed to the winners  of this year’s Necon Olympic events, and the ensuing discussion involved all things Necon, thanking the volunteers, and looking ahead to next year by listening to suggestions and complaints.  Speaking of complaints, there weren’t any.  This is an awesome con any way you slice it.

As always, thanks go out to the Booth family who run Necon every year, especially to Sara, who’s done an awesome job leading the con, and also to Dan and Mary, and to Matt Bechtel.  And of course, we continue to remember Bob Booth, Sara and Dan’s dad, and Mary’s husband, “Papa Necon” himself, who passed away from lung cancer in 2013.  Bob and Mary founded Necon back in 1980, and his spirit continues to be felt at Necon.

Bob also founded Necon Ebooks, which published my first novel, first movie review collection, and first short story collection.

After lunch, it was time to say so long to everyone until next year, which is clearly my least favorite part of Necon.

I enjoyed a fun conversation with Carole Whitney, as she shared with me her love of Hammer Films and told me the story of how her love for horror began in 1958 when she saw HORROR OF DRACULA at the movies.  Great story!

And that’s what Necon is all about.  The people and their stories.

If you’re a writer and/or a reader, plan on one day making the pilgrimage to Necon, a one-of-a-kind con that is more than just a con; it’s family.  And it’s still going strong.

This year’s Necon was absolutely electrifying, and we had a thunderstorm to prove it.  Who knows what’s in store for next year?

Whatever it is, I’ll be there to find out.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael