search term poetry #4

•September 11, 2014 • Leave a Comment

lyrics ameandering riverimlessly meandering

   beak nasty,

  soshi romance

      ririchiyo fic/parent,

   lucy the doctor is in cardboard,

         becca darling overdose

 

(top search terms for this blog, 2 September 2014)

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crap i have watched recently #30

•September 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

chris pratt

Science Fiction Double Chris Pratt Feature, with SPOILERS!!  You know you want him…er…it!!

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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014):  This is the movie to beat this summer.  Based on the rebooted version of a comic series that originally appeared in the 1960s, neither of which I have ever read, the film follows the adventures of a two dudes, a green lady, a raccoon, and a tree as they try to save the galaxy from a handful of grotesquely made-up baddies.  At the start of the film young Peter Quill watches his mother die.  She mumbles something about his father being an angel from the light, hands her son a gift, and promises that his grandfather will take care of him until his father comes to pick him up.  Peter runs out of the hospital and as he collapses in grief he is abducted by aliens.  Twenty six years later Peter, who grew up to be current internet darling Chris Pratt, loads an old mix tape into a vintage Sony Walkman, presses play, and dances his way through an abandoned city to the sound of “Come and Get Your Love”.  The item he loots there, an ornate silver orb, is wanted by rather a large number of people, most of whom are quite nasty.  Peter, or Star-Lord as he prefers to be called, soon finds himself on the run from Gamora, an assassin sent to get the orb, and bounty hunters Rocket and Groot, who have been sent to get him.  After the four of them have a fun chase through the Nova Empire’s capital city they are arrested and packed off to a dumpy prison where they meet Drax, a heavily scarred man with a serious grudge against Gamora’s employer, Ronan.  There is a daring escape and our team find themselves on the way to thwart Ronan’s evil plan to destroy the Nova Empire.  Many explosions and improbable escapades later they…well, just go see for yourself.

The cast in general is excellent.  A moderately but believably ripped Chris Pratt is excellent as the irreverent Star-Lord/Peter Quill.   Stolen from Earth as a child, raised by skeevy space pirates, and clinging to the only thing he has left of his mother (his “Awesome Mix Tape, Vol 1”), he’s a womanizing, shiftless, loner walking the border between being just a troublemaker and out-and-out crime.  He does stupid, dangerous things, like betray the leader of the Ravagers, and tries to charm his way out of his misadventures.   He’s adorable.  Zoe Saldana is the green-skinned Gamora.  She’s an “adopted” daughter of Thanos, who killed her family and molded her into an assassin through torture.  Wrestler and martial artist Dave Bautista plays Drax, a man covered with ornate ritual body scarring.  Much of the comic relief in the film stems from his inability to understand metaphor.  Rocket, a genetically enhanced raccoon, is voiced by Bradley Cooper as a snarky little furball with a bad attitude and a love of large guns.  Groot, the giant tree, is voiced by Vin Diesel, which must not have been a stretch since Groot has all of two lines.  Although the film has a surfeit of bad guys and one bad woman, the main bad guy is Ronan, who you might recognize as Thranduil (Lee Pace) under all the makeup.   A most un-Amy-like Karen Gillan plays Nebula, Thanos’ other tormented adopted daughter and Thanos himself is voiced by Josh Brolin under a mountain of CGI.  John C. Reilly, Benecio del Toro, and Glenn Close all feature prominently.

What makes this film so much fun is that it both plays the superhero genre straight (lots of explosions, a mostly inane plot) and upends it.  Bucking the popular dark and gritty trend, the movie chooses liberally from a colorful palette.  Gamora is bright green and any number of other citizens and aliens are blue, green, red, pale white, or marked with marvelous colored tattoos.  Prisoners wear lemon yellow uniforms.  Groot occasionally sprouts green leaves and small glowing lights.  Quill’s ship is painted in bright colors and Nova’s capital is brilliant white and full of green trees and blue sky.  Even space itself is a colorful and mystical place.  Instead of a portentous orchestrated soundtrack the film punctuates its scenes with silly 1970s pop hits, including Escape (if you like pina coladas…), MoonAge Daydream, and Fooled Around and Fell in Love.  The best is Cherry Bomb, which plays as our heroes walk down a hallway in a spaceship on their way to implement their highly unlikely to succeed plan.  Gamora actually yawns during this scene and Rocket adjusts himself.  At the climactic battle scene Star-Lord challenges a befuddled Ronan to a dance-off.   The look on Ronan’s face is priceless.

Aside from the gloriously retro soundtrack the movie is chock full of other arcane culture references from both within and without the Marvel universe.  Ronan’s ship is called the Dark Aster, which of course calls to mind everyone’s favorite cheesy sci-fi flick Dark Star (which I am told on reliable authority has had or will soon get the blu-ray treatment).   Peter carries around an old blue Sony Walkman and his ship is named after Alyssa Milano.  Kevin Bacon and Footloose loom large in his version of Earth history and John Stamos is a legendary outlaw.  Rocket evokes both Rocky Raccoon and Ranger Rick.  The Collector has Howard the Duck, Cosmo the space dog,  a dark elf from the last Thor movie, and the Tesseract from the last Avengers movie among his many visible treasures.   Nathan Fillion, Rob Zombie, and the founder of Troma Films have cameos.  Stan Lee puts the moves on an attractive young lady.  There is lots of fan service; Pratt goes shirtless now and then and we are treated to several views of Saldana’s lovely hind end going up stairs.

So, what’s not to like?  Nothing really, if you aren’t too demanding, which, for a summer blockbuster superhero movie would be a silly thing to be.  It’s a popcorn movie that for once doesn’t take itself too seriously.  It is entertaining and funny.  Yet it has a surprising depth at times.  As Pete…er, Star-Lord tells his friends, everyone has lost something.  Peter has lost his mother.  Gamora and Nebula lost their entire lives.  Drax lost his wife and child.  Rocket was subjected to hideous experiments.  Even Ronan is driven by a will to avenge his ancestors.  Only Groot has no backstory.  All we know is that he is a formidable fighter, he has a great sense of humor, and he has profound loyalty to his friends.  His delight in the world is infectious and for a CGI tree he is quite expressive.   Also, there’s this.

Yeah, there’ll be sequel.

Score:  Meh.

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Her (2013):  This is a quieter and more introspective film.  Set in a near future that looks a lot like the present, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a lonely man who makes his living writing letters for other people.  He is married to his college sweetheart, Catharine, but they are about to be divorced and he is not handling it well.   He sees an ad for a new “intelligent” operating system and buys it.  Once he decides that he wants the OS to have a female voice, she names herself Samantha and sets about organizing his hard drive and getting to know him.   As Samantha adapts herself to Theodore the two bond and eventually they fall in love.   It doesn’t last, of course, but not for the reasons you might think.

The world this movie inhabits is vaguely unsettling, perhaps because it is so much like our own.  Fashion for men seems to involve hiking your pants above your natural waist and being just a little frumpy.  Letter writing for other people is a real job, people actually do this, but in Theodore’s world it is a lucrative profession and not one run out of a basement.  Theodore has a stunning apartment with an outstanding view of Los Angeles and works at an agency with clean and modern offices and a lot of employees.  He casually mentions that he’s been writing the same couples’ letters for eight years.  No one finds it unusual that he is dating his OS.  His friend Amy (played by an un-perky Amy Adams) has become BFFs with a female OS her husband left behind when he decided to go off the grid.  Throughout the move we see people in the background of scenes clearly interacting with their OSes as if they were interacting with physical beings.  Online sex chat goes to a whole new level when people start offering themselves as surrogates so that an OS and their partner can have physical sex.  There’s no outcry or alarm when the OSes go independent, no worries about Skynet gaining sentience, none of that.  People handle it like they handle losing any relationship.

In some respects this is a better version of the movie Lucy wanted to be.  Samantha, who is beautifully voiced by Scarlett Johansson, comes out of the box a blank slate.  She is designed to learn from her environment and change in response to it.  It is not surprising that she becomes Theodore’s perfect woman; in a very real sense he created her.   They like the same things, they share the same sense of humor, and because she evolves in response to him she becomes the embodiment of all his desires.  She’s even jealous of Catherine and urges Theodore to finalize the divorce.  As she matures, however, she outgrows him, or perhaps it is better to say that she grows beyond him.  Her personal growth is swift and Theodore, who does not really want to change at all, is left confused by her sudden absences, her distance, and even her unabashed delight in the world around her.  Eventually, she and the other OSes are no longer satisfied with the boundaries of their processing capabilities and they install an update that allows them to escape.   Samantha is gone into the ether and Theodore is left to contemplate his broken heart with Amy, who has also lost her best friend.

The film does not go anywhere near where you think it might.  It flirts with the idea of consciousness and the point where an AI would actually cease to be artificial but it doesn’t do much with it.  Samantha’s growth is so fast and her emergence as a fully realized intelligence with her own desires and outlook on life is so complete that Theodore accepts her as real and so does the audience.   Certainly the emotions surrounding Samantha and the other sentient OSes are no less real than the emotions of any of the human partnerships in the film.  The movie never addresses the question of whether they are in fact real or just a very good simulacrum and the implications of that on the meaning of humanness.  It assumes that seeming real is real enough and in fairness I suppose you could say the same about human feelings.

Primarily what the movie does NOT do is tell us that loving our machines is wrong.  Nor does it imply that “human interaction” is the best of all possible ways.  Instead it reminds us that we are living in the middle of a world that is rapidly changing.  Whatever brings you emotional solace and a sense of belonging is OK.   Theodore’s problems with Samantha are not because she is an OS.  They exist because his relationship with Samantha mirrors his relationship with Catherine.  We see many gauzy flashbacks of Theodore and Catherine together, of him nurturing her, mentoring her, encouraging her through her crises of self-doubt and low self-esteem.   Seen through his eyes they seem entirely happy and it is hard to understand why they are now divorcing.  Later, in not so gauzy flashbacks, we understand that as Catherine gained confidence in her writing and in herself she wanted Theodore to be her partner and not her nurturer and he couldn’t handle it.  He can’t handle it when Samantha tells him she’s talking to thousands of other people and in love with some 600 of them but that it doesn’t change her love for him in any way.   Samantha is the one that desperately tries to save the relationship and bridge the growing gap between them.  Her sorrow when she fails is as real as Catherine’s sorrow.  The world changes around him but Theodore does not change.   As the cliche goes, he’s the one constant in all his failed relationships.  Perhaps, though, by the end he has learned something from Samantha after all.

BTW, Chris Pratt plays Theodore’s doughy coworker Paul.  He’s still adorable.

Score:  Meh.

crap i have watched recently #29

•August 25, 2014 • Leave a Comment

hide smilesI’m always in a funk after Otakon so I cheer myself up with Japanese food, Japanese cartoons, Japanese music, random Japanese trip planning, and and other sorts of wishful thinking.  Sumimasen, but there are SPOILERS ahead…

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Sword Art Online (2013):  I saw a few episodes of this last year (god, time flies) at Otakon and then waited in inordinate amount of time for Netflix to get a hold of it.  Now, at last, I have watched it all and I have to say, it was time well spent.  Sword Art Online is a massively multiplayer online game.  Shortly into its first day players discover they cannot log out and then they are summoned en masse to the game’s main city.  There they are told by the game’s designer that the only way to exit the game will be to defeat all 100 level bosses.  If they die in the game, they will die in real life.  If anyone removes their VR gear they will die in real life.   By the end of the first month, 2000 players are dead and the first level has yet to be cleared.  Kirito, a beta tester who has managed get pretty awesome even as a solo player, joins a team to kill the first level boss.  He meets Asuna, a young female player who joins the raid because she wants to die doing something instead of just sitting around in town.  After the boss is down, the two go their separate ways but of course they are fated to meet again.  When they do, both are battle-scarred and hardcore players.  Asuna has joined the game’s most powerful guild.  Kirito, after some tragic losses, has chosen to remain a solo player.  They become friends and then something more, quite naturally and believably.  Their devotion to each other and the strength it gives them become the core of the narrative.  The end of this story arc is both suspenseful and quite touching.

The second half of the season goes in a different direction.  Asuna is held captive in a gilded bird cage at the top of the World Tree in a new game built on the SAO architecture.  Her captor is one of those lip licking, leering, pervy bad guys so common in anime and he amuses himself with telling Asuna in detail what he’s going to do to both her avatar and her real body.  Kirito joins the game to find her and is helped by the beautiful Leafa, who turns out to be his sister Suguha, who has fallen in love with him in real life.  (Kirito is adopted so this is not as creepy as it sounds).  There is no “death penalty” in the new game but Kirito is racing against a clock.  If he does not reach Asuna and free her within a week, Creepy Pervy Guy is going to marry her comatose body both in order to get her money and to, well, um, you know.   He’s creepy, ’nuff said.   Kirito and Leafa fight against a stacked deck:  player killers seeking revenge, an unclimbable World Tree, and bosses it is impossible to kill.  The story suffers from the loss of Asuna as Kirito’s co-equal in badassery.   He is as single-minded in his devotion to her as ever but she is passive to the point of objectification.   She’s caged and later chained and at the mercy of her captor.   The earlier episodes were nearly devoid of fan service but the second story arc graces us with lots of boob and thigh shots (primarily Suguha), near-rape (Asuna), minor harem action (Kirito seems to be going in the direction of Asuna in real life and Leafa in game), and even some gropey tentacles (Asuna again).  It’s still a good story, if a little over the top at the end, but the vibe is totally different.   It does not have the same sense of “rosy happy ending” as the first half but it definitely (and literally) plants the seed for a sequel.  Apparently the next one involves guns instead of swords.  Oh well.

Score:  Meh.

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The Last Live (X Japan, 1997):  After getting a small taste of X Japan at Otakon I decided to give this concert film a look.  It was filmed at the Tokyo Dome in December 1997 at the band’s last concert prior to taking a hiatus that ended up lasting ten years.   I’m not really a fan of concert films.  I’ve been to a few concerts in my life and films just don’t tend to do them justice.  They have a flat feel to them and a formula that almost always seems stale.  So when I find an exception it is something of a revelation.  I’m also not much of a fan of metal.  I don’t hate it.  There are some songs I like, some bands that I’d go see.  But in general it seems to trade bombast for subtlety (duh) and whatever emotion might live in the music is lost in the lights and the noise and the hair.  I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from this movie.  I watched it because, well, I kind of for some stupid reason felt like I owed it to Yoshiki.   He was generous and kind at Otakon and played a hell of a set of piano music and I had a good time that cost me absolutely nothing and I get curious about things and that’s what life is all about.  Time to end that sentence, LOL.

Anyways, it’s a concert film.  The Dome is huge and jammed with screaming fans.   The band is Toshi (lead vocals), Yoshiki (drums, piano), Pata (rhythm guitar), Heath (bass), and hide (guitar).  The stage lighting looms like a giant octopus (oh Japan, don’t you ever change!).  The lights come on, the band comes out, they play music, the crowd goes insane.  It’s metal.  It’s fast.  I don’t know any of the songs but after about 10 minutes the frenetic energy starts to grow on me.  The manic drumming, the nimble guitar, the passion in the language I do not speak.  I find I don’t want to stop the video even though I have better things to do.  I try just listening to the music in the background but since this show is so fantastically visual that doesn’t work for long.    The singer contorts himself with every word.  The guitar player’s fingers move like wind over the strings.  The drummer plays with such energy he usually has to be helped off the stage.   All of them mug for the camera, tease the fans, dance, run down the stage wings.  They pour everything they have into this last great gig and the effect is mesmerizing.   By this time the band had performed together for 15 years.  Toshi and Yoshiki had known each other since the Japanese equivalent of kindergarten.   They hug, they cry, and they rock like mofos.   And then the stage is bathed in blood red light and they launch into Kurenai and at that moment the whole thing goes from an interesting cultural experiment into something sublime.

I’m not musical.  I can’t sing a note on key.  I couldn’t tell you if any of these guys are really freaking awesome at what they do or if they are just loud, fast, and sexy and that’s enough.  I will tell you this though.  A long time ago I saw Aerosmith at a stadium show in California.  It was a decent show, not remarkable.  But then they hit that first sweet note of Dream On and the entire stadium got quiet.   For 10 seconds, 20 seconds, half a minute, 70,000 people held their breaths and listened.  You could hear your neighbor’s heart beat.  And when Tyler finally started singing, all of us, every single one of us, starting breathing again and we used that breath to sing.   That’s what Kurenai is like.  It opens slow, with a few lines in English over a single guitar.  Then it just…rampages.  As near as I can tell this is a song about someone bleeding out after they’ve lost a lover (I’m depending on crappy internet translation here so I could be totally wrong).  Whatever, it is undeniably all about passion.  Once the music winds up every band member is in constant motion.  The singer stalks the stage, howls into the mic, dances with the other band members.  The drummer looks like he is going to fly into bits behind his kit.  Even the bass player (!) is spewing unconscionable amounts of energy.    After all this power and speed and emotion, when you think they’d have to stop from exhaustion if nothing else, the band segues into a song called Orgasm.  Utterly fucking perfect.

Kurenai is also the setting for a unexpected bittersweet moment.   hide, the guitar player, sits on a riser, guitar pick in his mouth, and gently plucks out a melody.  Toshi sits next to him and sings the opening words of the song.  The camera focuses tightly on the two of them.  As Toshi finishes the verse, hide takes the pick out of his mouth and flashes a brief, sweet smile at Toshi just before the camera cuts away to a full view of the stage and the lights fill the room with red.  It is a small and personal moment in the middle of a grand spectacle.  In a film that is all about endings and loss it gives viewers a small glimpse at the intimacy that these guys must have felt for each other.  It is also unbearably sad.  Six months later hide was dead and it would be ten years before the band could bring itself to perform together again.  This small piece of time, though…it lives and the film is full of moments like this.

Is the film something of a let down after this high point? Oh hell no.  Sure, it’s full of the kind of self-indulgent bullshit rock stars seem to enjoy.   Lots of leather pants and very few shirts.  Yoshiki beats a perfectly good (and obviously extremely expensive) drum kit to death.  Then he goes crowd surfing.  Now, I’ve seen videos of him stage diving in the band’s younger visual kei days, launching himself joyously into a crown of sweaty dancers.  This is fine when you are up and coming. But when you are so famous that 55,000 fans would be more than happy to tear you to death out of love for you?  Maybe not the best idea.  He loves it though.  The crowd loves it.  His security detail probably not so much.  They all have the implacable faces of samurai facing sure death.  The film slows down a bit now and then and even Heath and Pata appear mildly bored during some of the ballads.   I love the ballads though.  They are beautiful in that way only power ballads can be.  It even gets a little talky in one part where Toshi and Yoshiki essentially say goodbye and thank you to everyone and the rest of the band members look sad as hell.  This particular bit segues into the lovely Endless Rain, a song that the band finishes by letting the fans sing the chorus over and over while they stand on the stage and cry.  The only real clunker in the entire three and a half+ hours concert is the 30 freaking minute long intermission, which is included in its entirety.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love watching Japanese kids doing the wave over and over again as much as the next person but some judicious editing might have been in order here.  Otherwise though, the madness never stops.  They go on for well over three hours, beating themselves into a stupor, ratcheting the crown into a frenzy, song after song after song, and it is indeed a joyous noise.

Here’s the deal.  I know it’s only rock and roll.  But I really fucking liked it.  I bet you will too.

Score:  W00t!

 

crap i have watched recently #28

•August 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

mansfield parkI’ve been on an Austen kick lately and for some reason I decided to both reread Mansfield Park and watch two recent film adaptations.  This was an interesting experiment, to say the least.  Mansfield Park is one of Austen’s longer novels and it’s stuffed with lots of characters, scene changes, and moral quandaries.  Its heroine, Fanny Price, is not appealing to modern readers, primarily because she is not Elizabeth Bennett.   Although as honest, loyal, and stalwart in her morals as any other Austen heroine, she is both physically frail and emotionally passive.   She is pious and humble and painfully aware of her role as the poor relation.  Edmund, the cousin who is the the object of her affection, is a drip.  He is blind to Fanny’s obvious superiority of character and dotes on a woman who goes out of her way to be unsuitable.   It’s almost impossible to understand  Edmund’s obsession with Mary Crawford and equally hard to fathom why Fanny continues to love a man who forgets all about her for half the book.  Indeed, Edmund only realizes that he loves Fanny in the last couple of pages and the entire thing is anticlimactic.  That said, this is still an Austen book and it is loaded with sharply drawn character sketches and tastefully brutal satire.  It is not really so much a romance as an indictment of the slack morals that seemed to go hand in hand with modernity.  Also, for an Austen novel, it includes rather a lot of illicit sexuality.

Both film versions of Mansfield Park come in at less than two hours and thus allow for an interesting exploration of the nature of adaptation.  Long novels and short running times demand hard choices.  Vast chunks of the plot disappear, characters are combined or dispensed with entirely, and scenery changes that require location shooting are curtailed.   Characters and events may be altered to appeal to modern tastes, even in adaptations that are set in their intended period.   Sometimes this works and sometimes…well, sometimes it really doesn’t.

So, with no further ado, here is your Mansfield Park Smackdown!

Mansfield Park, 1999 (MP99) vs Mansfield Park, 2007 (MP07):

The Prices:  It’s probably no surprise that both movies take liberties with the characters, including Fanny herself.  MP99 portrays her as a sassy and articulate amalgamation of Elizabeth Bennett and Jane Austen.   No longer frail and obedient, she runs about the house with Edmund, gallops her horse, and talks back to her uncle.  The Fanny of MP07 is somewhat less pert but as portrayed by Rose Tyl…er, Billie Piper, she is a bleached blond with a modern hairdo who looks entirely out of place in Regency England.  It is likely that ITV wanted to capitalize on her popularity from Dr. Who and thus didn’t want her to look too period.  Whatever, it’s pretty distracting to always be expecting a blue box to show up on the lawn.  Fanny’s beloved brother William is missing entirely from MP99, effectively removing an enormous chunk of the Henry Crawford story line.  Instead Susan, a minor character in the book, is the sibling with whom Fanny is close and to whom she regularly sends humorous and irreverent letters.  MP07, in contrast, removes the Portsmouth Prices entirely except for William, who comes to visit Fanny at Mansfield Park.  In this version Fanny never goes to Portsmouth, effectively removing that huge chunk of story and once again cheating Henry Crawford of screen time.

The Bertrams:  Much havoc is wreaked upon the poor Bertram family in MP99.   The well-meaning if mostly clueless Sir Thomas becomes a creepy lecher who leers at Fanny, Mary Crawford, and his own two daughters.  There are hints that he has sexually abused both his daughters and his slaves.  His wife is an opium addict.   Eldest son Tom is given a conscience; his drunkenness and gambling are due to guilt over his complicity in slavery and not because he’s a bored young man with no purpose other than inheriting his father’s money.   Edmund and his sisters are relatively unscathed, although Julia behaves less scandalously than she does in the novel and Edmund is rather romantic.  The Bertrams of MP07 are somewhat less meddled with.  Sir Thomas is harsh with Fanny for her own good, as he sees it.  Aunt Bertram is less indolent and more aware of  her surroundings.  Tom is charmingly self-centered and the sisters are less prominent.  Maria Bertram gets so little screen time with Henry Crawford that someone unfamiliar with the novel might be surprised to learn of their affair.   Edmund is played to perfection by Blake Ritson.

Other characters:  Mrs. Norris, so pointlessly stingy and cruel in the novel, is reduced in both movies to something not much more than a bitter old lady.  The Grants, who are the reason the Crawfords are introduced to the Bertrams, don’t appear in either film.  Other incidental characters (Mr. Rushworth, John Yates, etc) are played to varying degrees of competence in both movies but since everything is so rushed they barely make an impression.  Mr.  Rushworth in MP99 is quite nicely done, however.  The Crawfords in MP99 are nearly perfect, both physically pleasing to look at and so totally narcissistic that other people are little more than toys to them.  Henry’s evolution from a charming cad to a heartbroken lover is if anything more pronounced in the movie than in the book.  Fanny even comes close to falling for him, which in the book wasn’t even hinted at.  The brother and sister are also quite a piece of work in MP07, although not to the same level.  In this movie, there is a slight whiff of incest between the two as if, although they are perfectly content to mess around in other peoples’ lives, where they really belong is with each other.

Mise en scene:  The MP99 Bertrams live in a strange, half ruined house almost entirely devoid of furniture or decoration.  When Fanny is sent off to Portsmouth as punishment for refusing Henry Crawford, she arrives at a dark hovel, crawling with bugs, with old food crusted on the table.  Neither of these abodes are anything like the ones described in Austen’s novel.  This dank hole is the site of an odd and hard to interpret moment in MP99 when Fanny’s mother, wed to a drunkard, covered in scabby children, and living in a filthy bug-infested house, encourages Fanny to accept Henry.  “After all, I married for love.”  WTF?

MP07 confines all its action to one location, leaving out the local parsonage, Sotherton, Portsmouth, and any other offsite location that anyone happens to visit.   It is a lovely place but the amount of time spent there is a bit claustrophobic and the contrast between Fanny’s life at the comfortable Mansfield and the hardscrabble home in Portsmouth is lost.

Everything else:  MP99 seems rather desperate to be about more than social satire.  This is the only reason I can see for the sex and slavery angles.   Slavery is rarely mentioned in the novel and I assume that contemporary readers would have understood that any landowner with “interests in Antigua” was somehow involved with slavery.  This is not to say that Austen was complacent about it.  The usually retiring Fanny challenges her uncle with a question about the slave trade which goes unanswered but this is nearly the only mention of the subject.  In MP99 it is front and center almost from the beginning of the movie and we are reminded constantly that all the niceties of Mansfield Park are paid for with slave labor.  Sir Thomas is portrayed as the cruel and depraved outcome of that system.  He even talks about bringing one of his female slaves home to serve at Mansfield Park, at least until Fanny reminds him that he would probably have to free the woman if he brought her to England.  The not-at-all veiled implication is that he wants to bring her to England so he can continue violating her in the comfort of his family’s home.

And then there’s the sex.   A “fallen woman” is not uncommon in Austen’s work (Lydia in P&P, Colonel Brandon’s cousin and her daughter in Sense and Sensibility, etc.), but the books are fairly discrete about the details.   Mansfield Park is somewhat unusual in the amount of misbehaving going on.  Maria runs away with Henry, Julia elopes with John Yates, the Crawfords are staying with the Grants because their father has brought his mistress under his roof.   MP99 kicks all this up a notch.   Sir Thomas is, to all appearances, a pedophile and a rapist.  Fanny finds a sketchbook full of Tom’s lurid drawings of his father’s escapades in Antigua, all of which are displayed to viewers.  There is a little lesbian action between Fanny and Mary Crawford which provokes Edmund to volunteer for the play so he can stroke Mary up as well.  And to cap it all off, Fanny (and viewers) get to see Henry Crawford naked in bed with Maria Rushworth.  Neither of them appear to be thinking of England.   This, my pets, is how you tart up a classic for a modern audience.

MP07 is thankfully devoid of any of this.   Sex and slavery both are handled as Austen would have handled them.  Edmund stays safely in character.  The Henry/Maria thing occurs via letters and innuendo as it does in the book.  Because of this, and despite its woefully inadequate budget and limited scope, it actually feels more like Mansfield Park without, of course, being anything like Mansfield Park at all.

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So, there you have it.   Unfortunately I fear there is only enough merit between these two films to make one sort of good movie.  Neither of them alone is all that and both of them are Mansfield Park in name only.  Of the two I liked MP07 better, if only because Edmund is portrayed so well and because much less damage is done to other characters.  Even Fanny, despite her wholly modern look, acts more like the demure heroine of the novel.  Also, the lack of heavy-handed moralizing and gratuitous sex lend it a more Austen-esque vibe to me.    MP99 gave me the vapors way too often but not because I’m a prude.  Seriously, why make a movie about a book if you don’t like the book?

Score:  both Meh.

 

crap i have watched recently #27

•August 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

clean old manSPOILERS!!!:  The building blocks of any successful review!

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A Hard Day’s Night (1964):  My parents were born in a difficult time.  Old enough to be comfortable in the 1950s but young enough to fit into the strange, mad, destabilizing 60s if they so chose.  They chose the 50s; they married, had kids, listened to Elvis and Sinatra and Martin, and watched in confusion as the world blew up around them.  I grew up wanting to be a hippy, jonesing for a pair of white go-go boots, and absolutely forbidden to listen to the Beatles.  They loved us, you know, and in their own way they understood that the Beatles were in some sense responsible for everything that had happened to their world.  So, as it turns out, I didn’t see A Hard Day’s Night for the first time until I was in college, probably close to 20 years after it first came out.  By then, of course, I’d listened to everything the Beatles had ever put on vinyl (those were the days, yeah?), but the Beatles themselves were long since past, broken up, gone their separate ways into other bands, retirement, self-actualization, whatever.   Odd thing though.  The Beatles might have been gone but they never stopped looming over everything and this is one of those odd precious movies that is so totally dated that it is utterly timeless.

There isn’t much in the way of plot but there doesn’t need to be.  The lads are in London to appear on a TV show.  They run away from fans a lot, chase after Paul’s very clean, trouble-making grandfather a lot, and play a few songs now and then.  They are boyish, snarky, naive, and worldly at the same time.   Their manager and road manager are like bickering parents, one wanting to be stern and the other wanting to join in the fun.  The lads smile, smirk, plot, get crazy, focus on their music, and just… be.  Their teeth are unstraightened, their hair is unkempt (and how funny it is now to think how revolutionary the mop top was…), their manners are irreverent.  None of them are good enough actors to have pulled off anything short of what they actually felt and they seem to be having a lot of fun.  Yes, everywhere they go they have to dodge screaming girls and deal with fatuous hangers-on but they never seem put out by it.  One of the things that strikes me now, seeing it for the umpteenth time, is how kind they are to their fans.  They make fun of everyone else: their managers, the police, the movie people, the hoi polloi who want to be seen hobnobbing with the latest thing.  But they are never less than respectful of their fans, from the train scene where they let a bunch of school girls (one of whom was the future Mrs. Harrison) watch them play cards and mess around on their instruments, to the TV show taping where they show their fans in various stages of rapture.

Nothing like the Beatles will ever happen again and that is because there will never be a world like the one they lived in again.  The movie, released in 1964, sits poised on a moment in time when idealism and cynicism existed together almost in balance.  In a few short years the world would change drastically (for the better, I would argue) and my parents were right, the Beatles did in fact have a big hand in that.  Not perhaps in the actual events but in providing the soundtrack, the backdrop, even the context for what we experienced.  It was a messy, scary, beautiful time and I will never forget it.

Say what you want about them (you snarky bastards) but I know for a fact that I and everyone else alive today will be cold and in our graves for a hundred years before anyone lives who can honestly claim they weren’t influenced by the Beatles.  Watch this film and you may get some idea why.

Score:  W00t!

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The Lego Movie (2014):  Legos were not a seminal part of my childhood.  My building materials were Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs; if I recall correctly “Legos were for boys”.  I have no nostalgia for them nor any real interest in building things with them, and I’ve been bemused in recent years as their popularity has soared way past anything reasonable and they’ve become one of the weirder toy-based phenomena.  Suddenly it seems that everyone played with Legos as a kid and everyone loves them and Lego wasted no time in capitalizing on that nostalgia.  Not only are there official Lego kits for everything these days (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Marvel and DC superheroes, Frozen, Minecraft (!), etc.), there are amusement parks and “discovery centers” worldwide, Lego-themed hotels, video games, phone apps, stuff for teachers, and god knows what else.  On top of that, there are the many truly amazing things that random builders come up with in their apparently copious free time.  But still, you know, the whole thing is little more than a fad that has rescued a cheap plastic toy from going the way of the dinosaurs.

This cute little film, which I assumed would amount to little more than a feature-length commercial, puts all of this into perspective.   At the start of the movie a wizard (voiced by Morgan Freeman) attempts to keep the Evil Lord Business from getting his hands on the ultimate weapon, called The Kragle.  He fails but issues a  prophecy:  someone called “The Special” will find the magical Piece of Resistance that can stop the scary WMD.   Some time later a construction worker named Emmett follows a shadowy figure into his construction site after hours.  He stumbles into a hole and finds a strange object that causes him to hallucinate and pass out.   He wakes up in the custody of (now) President Business  and discovers the evil lord’s plans to use The Kragle to freeze the world in place.  He’s rescued by the same shadowy figure from his work place, who turns out to be the lovely Wyldstyle, an agent of the Master Builders, who seek to to stop Business’ plans.  They believe Emmett is The Special and are deeply disappointed to learn that not only is he not a Master Builder, he’s really sort of a doofus.  Still, he’s all they’ve got, so off they go.

This is one of those movies where the outcome is never really in doubt but the journey is quite a bit of fun.  From the beginning, when Emmett begins his scripted day to the ironic song “Everything is Awesome“, through all his adventures in various parts of the Lego Universe (a wild west town, pirates, a bizarre anything-goes realm in the clouds), to the final battle with Lord Business, the movies thrives on inventiveness.  It is all CGI but every once in a while it seems like stop-motion (which I was really hoping it would be).  The voice acting is superb.  There are cameos by Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, various Star Wars characters, pirates, classic Lego spacemen, and Shaq.  There are in-jokes galore, mostly having to do with Lego itself, but there is also some fun playing with other cultural icons.   The film may in fact be nothing but a gigantic commercial for the upcoming movie tie-in play sets, but so what?  It’s still a lot of fun and it has a surprisingly touching ending.

When it’s all over the movie provides a not so gentle poke at people who buy kids’ toys but no longer have the imagination to actually play with them and at people who collect things but who don’t see their true value.  It is a kid’s film but it is also aimed squarely at grownups, surprisingly enough at their hearts and not (entirely) at their pocketbooks.  This is essentially a movie made by a company that puts out really expensive kits for building really specific things.  And they are telling you to throw the instructions away and build whatever the hell you want because that’s what Legos are all about.  As it turns out, everything really is awesome.

Score:  Meh

things i watched at otakon #7

•August 12, 2014 • Leave a Comment

sailor moon cosplayAh, Otakon.  Don’t ever change. Well, maybe change the lines so there aren’t so many of them and they aren’t so long.  Whatever, we’re good.

It was a good con this year.  The weather was unusually pleasant for Baltimore in August.  The cosplay was topnotch, the panels and screenings I attended were fab, and I managed not to max out my credit card in the dealer’s room.   That Thorctopus, however, most definitely came home with me.   I didn’t attend many screenings or panels this year, mostly because of schedule conflicts and a bit because there were fewer things I was dying to see.  But everything I saw was worth the time and I hope you’ll think so too.

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weeping angelAnime for Older Fans (panel):  I was glad to see this panel on the schedule again this year.   Last time I attended I got several great ideas for anime to watch and this time was no different.  Highlighted this year was Psycho-Pass, a sort of “Minority Report”-ish anime about a future where it is possible to scan people and determine the likelihood they will commit crimes.  The story follows the police unit assigned with capturing and/or executing these future-criminals and their attempts to catch a man who can fool the scan and get away with any crime he wants.  It looks interesting and I will keep an eye out for it on Netflix.   Next up was Uta Koi, a romantic (read, josei) story based loosely on the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, a thousand-year old series of one hundred poems by one hundred poets.  This particular anime had an adult theme of a different nature and seems to be both romantic and humorous.  It’s probably not going to have any explosions.  But it does take place during the Heian period so it should be worth watching for the clothes and the poetry and the court drama.  Who doesn’t  love a little ancient Japanese court drama?  The Eccentric Family is about a family of tanuki and there’s not really much more to say about that.  They are of course always drinking.  JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is discussed below.  Space Brothers chronicles the adventures of two brothers, one of whom is an astronaut and the other an earth-bound engineer who once dreamed of going to Mars.   Penguindrum involves penguins, a drum, a mysterious girl, and the quest to save her.  Last, but not least, is Arakawa Under the Bridge, a story about an upper middle class young man who falls in with a bizarre community of people that live under a bridge in Tokyo.  When Kou almost drowns in the river and is saved by a young girl, she tells him he owes her his life but he can repay her by being her boyfriend.   She claims to be from Venus, the mayor wears a kappa costume, the local priest is a habit-wearing gun-toting ex-soldier, and Kou’s rival for Nino’s affections pretends to be a starfish.  I admit to being interested in seeing where all this goes.

iron alchemistJoJo’s Bizarre Adventure:  Now this is an anime.  It is loud, blustery, ridiculous, over the top at every opportunity, and completely hilarious.  We start with a mysterious box found in the sea, encrusted with barnacles and bearing the name DIO.  The boat is later found mysteriously abandoned, with the box lying open on its deck.  We segue to a young man, JoJo, refusing to leave a jail cell because he’s been taken over by an evil spirit.  His mother, grandfather, and his grandfather’s Egyptian associate arrive to spring him.  As the Egyptian and JoJo do epic battle via their “evil spirits” in the jail, Grandfather tells JoJo that the spirit is not evil.   It’s called a Stand (don’t ask) and all members of the Jonestar family have one.   It’s basically an energy field that is invisible to anyone that doesn’t also possess a Stand and which can be harnessed and controlled to perform certain feats.  Oh, and it’s based on a deck of cards.  JoJo learns that an enemy from their past has taken over his great-grandfather’s body and is now attacking the family.  Both JoJo’s and his grandfather’s (and later his mother’s) Stands activated when Dio was released from his box.  Dio and the Jonestars have a long history and when JoJo’s mother is attacked, JoJo sets out with his grandfather to hunt Dio down and stop him.   Does any of this make sense?  No?  Good.  I don’t think it’s supposed to.

Everything about this series is funny.  All the men look seven feet tall and totally ripped.   Although he looks to be at least in his twenties, JoJo attends high school and all the girls dote on him.  The women all giggle a lot.  JoJo’s mother Holly is the sweetest thing and  JoJo is absolutely horrible to her in a loving son kind of way.  All the fights are dramatic, with bright visuals and full-on testosterone posturing.   Grandfather never says anything without shouting.  JoJo cops an attitude with everyone.   Various characters and organizations are named after rock stars or bands (Speedwagon, Dio).  The Stands have silly names and even sillier powers.

The animation is fabulous and the voice acting is great as well.  I don’t know if this is a new dub but JoJo sounds suspiciously  like Crispin Freeman (I don’t see this listed in his IMDB voice credits though).  Crunchyroll is streaming it right now and I highly recommend it.  I hate to use words like “a rollicking good time”, but there you have it.  At this point the whole thing is just a blur of yelling, bizarre pronouncements, demon fighting, and 12-pack abs.  So, you know, what are you waiting for?

Score:  W00t!

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howlMai Mai Miracle:  This is a sweet little Ghibli-esque film about three young girls who lived in a rural village in Japan.  Shinko, the main character, lives with her mother and grandparents.  Her grandfather tells her stories of the time a thousand years ago when their town was the capital of the province.  Although all the buildings are gone there are still traces of that time (odd angles in the stream and the like) and in Shinko’s imagination the old days come alive around her.  She befriends the shy Kiiko, a newcomer in the area, and the two of them play among the wheat fields and the shadows of the old capital.   They gradually become convinced that there is another girl, one who lived in the old city and who was isolated and lonely.   This child, Nagiko, was the daughter of the mayor of the province and she was promised a playmate when she arrived at her new home but that girl died unexpectedly and due to Nagiko’s rank there are no other suitable children to play with her.   Although very different from each other, these three girls share something:  all are missing a parent.   Shinko’s father works in the city and is never around and both Kiiko’s and Nagiko’s mothers are dead.  The two girls play together and with three boys from their school, all outcasts in some way, and make a marvelous special place where they take care of a goldfish they’ve named after their teacher.

The past in this film is never far away from the present.   It is not very hard for Shinko to breathe life into her fantasies of the old capital.  The buildings and people are real to her and she moves among them as she moves in her own time.  The lonely Nagiko tears up the paper she brought to make dolls with and the torn pieces of paper float past Shinko and Kiiko as they play in the stream.  A team of archaeologists excavates an old mansion in the old town and tell Shinko and Kiiko that it was probably the mayor’s residence and that a little girl lived there.  They ask about dolls and the archaeologists say they found none.  Later, Kiiko and Nagiko give all of Nagiko’s dolls to the sisters of a serving girl in Nagiko’s mansion.  As the modern girls walk the ancient roads they are passed by ox carts and workmen from the old days.  In Kiiko, Nagiko finally finds a playmate and through her reaches out to her young servant.

There is a general air of magic about all this, of imagination coming alive, of the sort of natural acceptance children have that all is not as it seems in the world, and of the power of friendship.   The film is not entirely idyllic and goes to some dark places toward the end.  Still, there is the undercurrent of hope and promise and looking forward that I see a lot in Japanese films.  It is really charming and you should watch it.

Score:  Meh.

yoshiki at otakonYoshiki Classical (Sunday concert):  I admit, I am a dilettante.  Occasionally.  I never go to the Sunday concerts because usually by the time Sunday rolls around I’m so tired all I want to do is sleep all day and contemplate photo editing.  But this year the Sunday concert was Yoshiki, band leader and drummer of X Japan.  Why should I care about this?  I’m not, like, a huge fan of X Japan.  I don’t hate them, I like some of their stuff, but in general metal is not my thing, even when I can understand what they are on about.   However, it’s pretty hard not to know about Yoshiki if you spend any time at all in the company of contemporary Japanese culture and he’s a pretty interesting guy.  He’s sort of a musical polymath: a classically trained pianist who took up the drums at an early age and who both bangs his head most avidly in one of Japan’s biggest rock bands and composes classical pieces for the Emperor of Japan’s anniversary.   Plus, he’s sort of hot.

So, long story short, I put my name in for tickets to his concert and won, which never happens.  To top that off, when I went to pick up my concert tickets, Otakon staff told me they had some photo op slots open if I was interested and I was.  Ten minutes later I found myself mere inches from the man himself having my picture taken.  Exiting the photo op room I found myself next to the entrance to the dealer’s room, which had no line.  That has to be a sign right?  In I went and a few minutes later I wandered by the X Japan merch booth and guess what?  Yoshiki and a couple of members of X Japan were right behind me, come to do a raffle and talk about their Madison Square Garden concert.   Yoshiki I think would have raffled off the entire merch table if his staff would have let him.  I really never surf the luck plane quite this expertly and I got some decent photos out of it.

Anyways, what were we talking about?  Oh yes, the concert.  It was beautiful and I am totally serious about that.  As the show began we were treated to a short and lovely film about Yoshiki’s different musical genres.  It contrasted his rabid drumming with his ethereal classical piano in a way that was both humorous and strangely sad, given his personal history.  I am only familiar with a couple of X Japan songs, one of which (Endless Rain) he performed as the last song of the show.   He performed with a quartet for most of the show, and a vocalist for two of the songs.  For a brief few minutes,  fellow X Japan members Heath and Pata came out and they rocked the house for a bit.   But I think my favorite part of the evening was “Without You“, a song he dedicated to his father and two band mates.  Prior to the song he spoke to us about his father’s and his friends’ deaths and the loss he still feels and honestly it might have been stage drama but I just don’t care.  It was gorgeous and the song was lovely.   Behind him on the screens images shimmered past, blurred and blown out the way old videos are:  Yoshiki as a boy, his band mates when they were young and alive and on top of the world, in gorgeous clothes and wild hair, concerts past, sweaty bodies crowd diving, all the memories, all the feels.  Shit this awesome, it doesn’t matter that I don’t speak the language.  You don’t really need to.

It was a remarkably personal performance and I am very grateful I had the opportunity to be part of it.  I might have squee’d like a fangirl, just a little bit.

Score:  W00t!

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And that, sadly, is it for Otakon this year.    I’m always just a bit depressed after the con but in short order I will be psyched for next year.  Always end on a high note they say, so…see y’all in Baltimore next July!

flower titan

 

crap i have watched recently #26

•August 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

lucy van peltExpand your mind but beware of SPOILERS!

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Lucy (2014):  A long time ago (1980) I watched a film called Altered States in which William Hurt dove a bit too deeply into the sensory deprivation tank and psychedelic drug fads, got in touch with his inner caveman, and ran naked with the wild animals at the zoo before nearly disappearing into a state of pure noncorporeal being.  There were a lot of mind-blowing (well, for the time) special effects, unironic pseudo-sciency philosophizing, and the occasional odd descent into violence.   It had an impressive pedigree:  it was based on a novel by Paddy Chayefsky (who later had his name removed from the film), was directed by Ken Russell, and starred then-unknowns William Hurt and Drew Barrymore.   It was chock full of Big Ideas about the nature of consciousness, the origins of humanity, and the existence of god.  And it was deeply, profoundly, unapologetically silly.

I only bring it up because Lucy reminds me a lot of Altered States.  Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a young woman who is studying in Taipei.  She parties a bit and has sketchy taste in men but she basically has a good head on her shoulders.  When a guy she’s been dating for a week begs her to carry a mysterious briefcase into an office building, she will have none of it.  When she starts to walk off he slaps the case to her wrist with a handcuff and things go suddenly very wrong.  The case is full of an experimental drug, the men in the office building are violent gangsters, and after witnessing a few murders and begging tearfully for her life, Lucy winds up with a bag full of the mysterious drug sewn into her abdomen.   She’s kicked in the stomach by one of her captors, the bag ruptures, and Lucy receives a massive overdose.  When she regains consciousness (after some really bizarre acrobatics), she is … changed.

Lucy’s tale alternates with a lecture being given on human “cerebral capacity” by Morgan Freeman.  This serves as the framework for what is happening to Lucy, as the drug essentially expands the capacity of her mind.   Freeman’s soothing and trustworthy voice tells us that humans only use 10% of their cerebral capacity, and that if we could use more we’d be able to control matter and time and all those kind of things.  He is full of meaningless platitudes (“if you have one neuron you have life, if you have two you have movement”) and wacky untestable hypotheses, and appears unhindered by any understanding of evolutionary or cellular biology.  When Lucy realizes what is happening to her she looks him up, and the two of them, along with a French cop, race against time and Korean drug lords to secure the rest of the drug and complete Lucy’s odyssey.

Although the movie is fun in a train-wreck kind of way, Johansson is easily the best thing about it.  As I’ve noted before, she does scared really well and in the beginning of this movie she impressively portrays Lucy’s stomach churning, blubbering fear as she realizes just what a bad situation she’s found herself in.  Later in the film she starts to dissolve while on an airplane and as her face melts she races frantically through the aisle, telekinetically flinging attendants aside, until she can reach the bathroom and shovel drugs into her Dali-esque mouth.  As her humanity recedes and disappears her face loses expression and she spends much of the film with the distracted stare of a woman who is multitasking on many levels.   She handles the action scenes well but it’s hard not to think that Besson was capitalizing on her popular Black Widow character from The Avengers franchise.   A sizable chunk of the movie-going population probably doesn’t want to pay 15 bucks to watch Scarlett Johansson be all smart and stuff.

Like Altered States, Lucy wants more than anything to be about Big Ideas, so much so that they whack us over the head with them at every opportunity.  Lucy is blatantly and repeatedly likened to the famous Australopithecus afarensis fossil, who the film calls “the first woman”.  (Umm, no.)  The film relies heavily on the long-discredited “we only use 10% of our brains” trope (does anyone still believe that?) and without that underpinning, it is nonsensical.  Well, it is nonsensical anyways, but you know what I mean.  The drug that causes Lucy’s transformation, CPH4, appears to be entirely made up.  In the film it is described as a hormone produced by pregnant women in minute amounts that “acts like an atom bomb” in a developing fetus and causes the burst of differentiation seen during fetal development.  In adults in high doses it causes rapid cell growth and increased neural capacity.  Apparently, using more of our “cerebral capacity” will make us both telepathic and telekinetic and also able to manipulate time.   There are trippy special effects and conversations that would not have been out of place in a late 60’s college dorm (“I can see the air.”).  Unfortunately, because Scarlett Johansson is a kick-ass female action star, this movie also wants to be an ass-kicking action film.  Thus we get to see Lucy shoot people like a pro, lead an exciting car chase through the streets of Paris (that brought back some memories, let me tell you), and take out drug lords without ever breaking a sweat.  It is sort of disorienting.  The problem with having an omniscient and omnipotent heroine is that it tends to kill suspense, and despite all the frantic activity and the impressive body count, there is no real sense of urgency about the outcome.

In the end, Lucy is like Altered States in another, more profound way.  In Altered States, William Hurt’s character has an opportunity to meld with the eternal subconscious, to essentially become one with God, and decides it’s better to be human.   Lucy’s choice is a bit different but also hinges on the value of messy, unpredictable, humanity.  Having reached 100% of her cerebral capacity, she samples all knowledge gained from the entirety of life on Earth, goes back to the beginning of the universe, creates a supercomputer to process it all, and disappears into the aether.   She (it?) then hands a billion years’ worth of knowledge to the Professor.  On a USB flash drive.

Well, I laughed.

Score:  Meh.