IMO: Science Fiction, Metropolis and Ad Astra

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In German class, we are exploring German Expressionism found in film. I showed them the Fritz Lang masterpiece, Metropolis (1927). My students were born after The Matrix CGI made a leap forward. CGI has been a part of their entire lives like cell phones. To show them a silent film made in 1927, and they thought the special effects were cool, and the application of the characteristics of German Expressionism (distortion, exaggeration of human feeling, extreme contrast, horror) was fascinating; I was thrilled that after ninety years, Metropolis still captivates.

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When Fritz Lang’s film came out it met with mixed reviews. Favorably, people felt the images and the production design was a character unto itself. They thought it was beautiful in a macabre way. Hence, Metropolis’s effect on future generations is undeniable. Just ask any fan of  Star Wars or Bladerunner.

I saw Ad Astra last weekend in the theater, and I left thinking I had seen a quasi-remake of Apocolypse Now. Tommy Lee Jones was Kurz. Snippets of recordings gave ambiguous meanings to his tracker. Was the fallen angel of the space program crazy and a murderer? I wish Tommy Lee’s character Clifford McBride had lines to say like Kurz:  “I’ve seen horrors, horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that, but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror! Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies.”

Brad Pitt’s narration reminded me of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen). Narrating his long epic journey from Earth to Neptune, he questions and fears meeting his father, the man the government wants to be assassinated.

The visuals were fantastic. I’m so glad I saw it on the big screen. Like Metropolis, the production design of Ad Astra transported the individual to the future.

However, I left the theater disappointed. The execution of the storyline was bland. I wished for philosophical discussions. I thought there was too much build-up for a weak finish. I wanted more than the overused close-ups of the wrinkled faces of the two leading men. If only they shortened the journey (It was hard to believe he had traveled to Neptune) and gave more scenes to the father-son like Kurtz and Captain Willard. I thought back to Metropolis and realized once again that you can have the best special effects in the world, but without an interesting storyline, it ends up flat. I wanted a biting social commentary.

Of course, this is just my opinion. Metropolis had mixed reviews. And look how it fared over time. Got five minutes? Here, take a look at why:

 

 

Are You Not Entertained? Four Films

Here are a few recommendations for you. There seemed to be an unconscious theme going on with my viewing when first I watched actor Charlie Plummer in the messy All the Money in the World (The book was better.) and then went to the cinema to find him again in a major role that grabbed my heart and squeezed. British Andrew Haigh directed that tale set in Portland, Oregon and the wilderness landscape of Idaho. Days before by happenstance, I rented his 2015 romantic drama, 45 Years.    

Director Andrew Haigh‘s film adaptation Lean on Pete(2018) from the novel by Willy Vlautin is a heartfelt coming of age story featuring teenager  Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer). Enduring shaky parenting and the dire need for money, Charley finds a job at a racetrack and is heartbroken when the horse Pete is destined for slaughter. They run away in search of a home and his trek to find a distant relative becomes a tale of survival. Thank God for the satisfying ending because the audience must endure Charley’s misfortunes and it’s heavy. During the trek, Pete walks with his horse instead of rides him, and his monologues with Pete soften the film and balance out the harsher episodes of his life. Soulful and tender, Charlie Plummer gives an outstanding performance with solid performances given by the rest of the cast: Travis Fimmel, Steve Buscemi, and Chloë Sevigny. 4/5

45 Years (2015) It was great to see Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courteney on the screen together as the featured couple. This Andrew Haigh film is utterly different than Lean on Pete. Kate and Geoff Mercer are about to celebrate their 45th anniversary in a week. Geoff receives a mysterious letter regarding an old flame before his marriage to Kate. Vacationing in the Alps in the 1960s, the lover had died. Kate Mercer’s curiosity about their relationship creates a foreboding anticipation as she learns to her dismay that the love of her husband’s life was not her. A long marriage carries with it layers and secrets of the heart and emotional triumphs and pain. As the days creep toward the anniversary party, the fracture in the foundation spreads. Watch how music plays an effective role in the storyline. It’s a quiet film that unfolds gently. 4/5.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story documentary was a captivating revelation of the stunning Hollywood star, Hedy Lamarr. I didn’t know anything about her. A popular theme for me is the concept of beauty and how women respond to that power for better or worse. Place that theme in the 1920-1940s, and I’m a sucker for the story. What was extraordinary about Hedy was her mind. Few knew she was a keen inventor who aided the allies in World War II with her invention. (And she didn’t get paid for it.)  It was the basis of what we take for granted today–WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth. Learning something new gives my rating for the documentary high marks. I was riveted. 4.5/5.

Dark City (1998) film by Alex Proyas is a science fiction mind bender. A man wakes up with his memory gone but next to a murdered body. The police inspector (William Hurt) and the kooky psychiatrist (Kiefer Sutherland) try their best to capture him (Rufus Sewell). His estranged wife (Jennifer Connelly) can’t decide if she should help him figure out his personal mystery. Meanwhile, menacing bald men in long black coats have special powers and try to kill him. The production design borrows heavily from MetropolisIn the Director’s Cut, Proyas admits he was additionally inspired by the film noir The Maltese Falconand The Twilight Zone. Add to the shadows, buildings that grow and shift (Inception took this and ran with it), a Truman Show-esque punch through reality’s wall, and the Nosferatu baldies, who collectively click their teeth to communicate. I couldn’t help but feel the movie borrowed from so many places there wasn’t anything original about “the masterpiece”. If I had seen it in 1998, I would have loved it. The set pieces, I learned, were sold to the producers and used in The Matrix a year later. Did it wow you back in 1998? 4/5. 

Are You Not Entertained?

Here resumes a monthly recap of better music, books, films, and television that entertained me. 

MUSIC

We’ve had a lot of visiting relatives this past month, and Neil Young seemed to be the background noise for much of it. At one point, I actually got tired of listening to him. But he is a staple in our home, and with healthy intermissions, I enjoy listening to his albums. He’s a fun one to mimic with those notes delivered at the back of the throat. He is a mood-setter. In my world, there’s nothing better than sitting by a fire outdoors or in, with wine and Neil singing in the background. How do you pick a favorite? This love ballad released in 1992 never grows old.

BOOKS 

 

Who was the first woman to obtain a glider pilot’s license? Anne Morrow Lindbergh. That’s understandably overshadowed by her husband’s accolades. The most famous man in the world in 1927, Charles Lindbergh landed his Spirit of St. Louis near Paris and completed the first solo airplane flight across the Atlantic. She was his co-pilot literally and figuratively throughout their 45-year marriage. Author Melanie Benjamin‘s historical fiction account is a refreshing twist showcasing the complicated life of the couple from Anne’s perspective. It is a novel full of intrigue, adventure, and scandal without sounding like a soap opera. Melanie Benjamin keeps the narrative cool enough to avoid melodrama, but close enough for the reader to feel like they’re privy to the introverted couple, and it is easy to care for Anne in her unique position. The Aviator’s Wife is gracefully written, entertaining novel. 4/5.

Edward Rutherford’s books are fun history. New York follows the chronological format as the other novel of his I read, The Princes of Ireland. Rutherford created an epic by placing fictional characters that represented a class or social group and placed them into historical events. My favorite section in New York was the July 1863 New York City draft riots. A husband tried to find his abolitionist wife who faced a mob who wanted to kill the African American orphans at her school. I kept thinking about Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York when I read this part of the novel; not too surprised to realize I liked the book version more. 4/5. 

TELEVISION

I didn’t like it–I loved every episode including the cool intro music and artwork. Why? I’m a fan of 20th Century social history especially of film. Plus, I think it’s peculiar–America’s obsession with movie stars and the interworkings of making a movie. Although Susan Sarandon portrayed Bette Davis and Jessica Lange depicted Joan Crawford with admirable effort, the most convincing performances went to the entire supporting cast notably Stanley Tucci as Jack L. Warner, Alfred Molina as Robert Aldrich, and Jackie Hoffman as Mamasita. The 8 episode series juggled two stories–the actual feud between Davis and Crawford (I love Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? so the drama behind the film attracted me.) The other story was the Hollywood climate surrounding the casting couch and the manipulative power of male movie moguls. By the end of the series, I had an itch to explore director Robert Aldrich’s filmography.

Movies 

I’ve seen a lot of films lately, especially starring Gene Hackman, but for this post, I picked a pair that had me thinking and feeling.

Predestination(2015). This is a mind-bending, science fiction thriller film written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig with screenplay help by Robert A. Heinlein.  Time travel is an easier concept to play out in books than in films because the price asked for the suspension of disbelief is high. In books, your imagination fills in the holes while not so at the movies. In this story, agent (Ethan Hawke) embarks on a final time-traveling assignment to prevent an elusive criminal from launching an attack that kills thousands of people. A fine performance by Hawke, but the show goes to the creative performance by Sarah Snook. It’s one I’d watch again. 4/5.

Wind River (2017).  It’s a mystery, crime thriller that personifies the cold, spring of Wyoming on an American Indian reservation. A daughter is raped and runs six miles in her bare feet across the winter landscape. A pretty FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives to investigate, ill-suited but determined to solve the mystery, and teams up with wildlife officer Lambert (Jeremy Renner). Despite the somber premise, the movie is moving because the theme of loss permeates all the characters and is allowed to surface in a way that is harmonic with the whispering wind and frozen landscape and a satisfying resolution. It is a strangely beautiful film. Plus, if you want to see a pair from Dances with Wolves, Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal were a sight for sore eyes. Actor Gil Birmingham returns from Hell or High Water (2016) to give the best performance of the film as the grieving father. Director and writer Taylor Sheridan is fast becoming a favorite with Sicario (2015), and Hell or High Water (2016) to his credit. He seems to be carrying a freshly-lit torch as writer and director of the post-modern Western. Taylor Sheridan’s ability to make the natural setting an integral part of the plot and his willingness to let an ensemble cast have lines and scenes that foster true characterization are reminiscent of the Coen Brothers. 4.2/5.

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