Archive for the 'Film' Category

Short takes: ‘Knives Out,’ ‘Vivarium’ and ‘Domain’ (2016)

August 15, 2020
Combination image: ‘Knives Out,’ ‘Vivarium’ and ‘Domain’ (2016)

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 15, 2020

Rian Johnson’s 2019 feature, Knives Out, is an amusing mystery revolving around the apparent death of a wealthy mystery author by his own hand.

The decedent is Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who resides in an elegant three-story mansion on a large estate somewhere outside Boston. The morning after his 85th birthday party — a lavish affair attended by his son, daughter, daughter-in-law and their assorted children — Thrombey’s body was discovered by the housekeeper, Fran (Edi Patterson).

A week has passed since then, but even though the police were about to close the case as suicide, they’ve called all of the party attendees to the house for further questioning. The continued investigation, it emerges, is prompted by a renowned private detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig essaying a so-so Southern accent), who’s been hired by — well, he actually doesn’t know who hired him.

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Short takes: ‘Mission: Impossible — Fallout,’ ‘Conan the Barbarian’ (2011) and ‘Stargate’

August 8, 2020
Combination image: ‘Mission: Impossible — Fallout,’ ‘Conan the Barbarian’ (2011) and ‘Stargate’

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 8, 2020

I was never much of a fan of the original Mission: Impossible movie, which came out in 1996 and was based on a TV series that aired from 1966 through 1973. The 2000 follow-up, Mission: Impossible II, struck me as so-so. But the third entry in the franchise, M:I III, directed by J.J. Abrams, was really terrific, as all three further sequels have been.

The most recent outing was 2018’s Mission: Impossible — Fallout, which opens with hero secret agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) opting to save the life of colleague Luther Stickell (series regular Ving Rhames) at the cost of letting a terrorist organization get its hands on weapons-grade plutonium. Impossible Mission Force director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) dispatches Hunt to recover the material, naturally, but hard-as-nails CIA head Erika Sloane (Angela Bassett) insists that Hunt be accompanied by one of her agents, August Walker (Henry Cavill, once again playing an American).

‘Mission: Impossible — Fallout’

The pair plan to intercept and impersonate a ne’er-do-well named John Lark who has made tentative arrangements to purchase the missing radioactive material. Unfortunately for Hunt, the broker, known as the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), will only sell “Lark” the plutonium if he helps her free Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the bad guy from the previous installment, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. Hunt and Walker work up a plan with Stickell and another IMF regular, Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), but they find themselves having various run-ins with former British spy Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), another Rogue Nation character, who isn’t willing to see Lane freed.

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Short takes: ‘The Avengers,’ ‘True Grit’ and ‘The Lighthouse’

August 6, 2020
Combination image: ‘The Avengers,’ ‘True Grit’ and ‘The Lighthouse.’

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 6, 2020

Author’s note: The third and last work discussed in this post, The Lighthouse, has a well-deserved R rating because of sexual situations and violence. As such, that part of the post may not be suitable for young and/or sensitive readers. MEM

Joss Whedon’s 2012 Marvel Comics movie, The Avengers, is a delightful superhero romp.

The movie opens with the exiled Asgardian prince Loki (Tom Hiddleston) raiding a federal laboratory and absconding with a mystical power source known as the tesseract. He takes with him physicist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), who’s been experimenting with the ancient device (previously seen powering the bad guys in Captain America: The First Avenger and making a cameo in the end credits scene of Thor), and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), on whom he’s cast a spell that compels their obedience.

With an eye toward recovering the tesseract quickly and quietly, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) assembles a team of capable heroes and brilliant scientists and engineers. The group soon to be known as the Avengers includes Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.); physicist Bruce Banner, who when angered becomes the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, stepping into Edward Norton’s shoes); Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans); Asgardian demigod Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki’s stronger but not quite as quick-witted brother; and the incredibly agile Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, reprising her role from Iron Man 2).

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Short takes: ‘Thor,’ ‘Super 8’ and ‘Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events’

August 3, 2020
Combination image: ‘Thor,’ ‘Super 8’ and ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ 

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 3, 2020

The great virtue of the 2011 movie Thor, an entertaining early entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is that it breaks new ground in superhero movies. After all, the title character, played by Australian hunk Chris Hemsworth, isn’t just another guy in tights — he’s a god whose dad, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), is known as the Allfather.

A lot of the picture is devoted to palace intrigue. At the very moment Thor is about to take Odin’s place as king of Asgard, the Allfather’s old rivals, the Frost Giants, invade Asgard’s armory in a foiled attempt to retake some powerful magic item. Angered by this incursion, Thor disobeys his father’s wishes and travels to Jötunheim, the Frost Giants’ planet, with his wily brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and his loyal warrior pals, Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Josh Dallas), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander), in an ill-thought-out bid to discourage further aggression by the giants’ ruler, King Laufey (Colm Feore).

Odin has to come at the last minute to save the youngsters’ hides. Furious at Thor’s unsanctioned aggression, he banishes his golden-locked son to mundane Earth and installs Loki as his successor. Thor’s friends soon become suspicious of Loki’s machinations, however — misgivings that are shared by Heimdall (Idris Elba), who controls the Bifrost, a magical artifact that allows Asgardians to travel anywhere.

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Short takes: ‘The Expanse’ season 3, ‘Megamind’ and ‘The Haunting of Hill House’

July 31, 2020
Combination image: ‘The Expanse,’ ‘Megamind’ and ‘The Haunting of Hill House.’ 

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 31, 2020

If you like space opera and you haven’t seen the TV series The Expanse, you’re doing it wrong. I could also have written, “If you like intelligent science fiction and you haven’t seen the TV series The Expanse, you’re doing it wrong.”

The show debuted in 2015 on Syfy and has compiled 46 episodes over four seasons. All the episodes are available through Amazon Prime Video, the exclusive home for the series’ fourth season, which debuted in December. I saw the first two seasons a couple of years back and recently watched season three; I hope to catch up on the new season in the near future. Filming has evidently finished on the show’s fifth season, which could be released later this year.

The Expanse is based on a series of novels by James S.A. Corey, the pen name of a pair of Albuquerque writers. Set in the 24th century, when humans have colonized Mars and a number of other locations, the show focuses on a quartet of blue-collar astronauts who stumble upon a series of secret experiments. The research involves a mysterious self-replicating substance called the protomolecule, which originated outside the solar system and has a nasty habit of destroying everything in its path.

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Short takes: ‘A Dark Matter,’ ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ and ‘Deep Star Six’

July 28, 2020
Combination image: ‘A Dark Matter,’ ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ and ‘DeepStarSix.’

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 28, 2020

Peter Straub will probably always walk in Stephen King’s shadow. They were both born in the 1940s, they are both bestselling American writers known for their tales of horror, they both launched their careers in the ’70s, and they’ve even collaborated on a pair of novels. But King is by far both more prolific and more popular, and it would take something monumental to change that.

(Straub published his most recent novel in 2010. According to this list, King has put out 10 novels from 2011 through last year. And in early 2019, I did a thorough…ish investigation of King’s popularity.)

That said, I enjoyed Straub’s latest novel, A Dark Matter. The volume is narrated by Lee Harwell, a novelist who becomes determined to find out what happened to his wife and their friends during a strange ceremony in the autumn of 1966.

The ritual was conducted by a traveling mystic named Spencer Mallon with a handful of people. There were a pair of skeevy fraternity brothers at the University of Wisconsin, Keith Hayward and Brett Millstrap; a beautiful coed, Meredith Bright; the narrator’s then-girlfriend, high school student Lee “The Eel” Truax; and his and the Eel’s three best pals, Howard “Hootie” Bligh, Donald “Dilly” Olson and Jason “Boats” Boatman.

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‘Force 10 from Navarone’ and ‘Overlord’ are World War II movies that traffic in tropes from very different genres

July 24, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 24, 2020

Author’s note: The discussion of Overlord, the second movie covered in this post, may not be appropriate for young and/or sensitive readers. MEM

I did another double feature of sorts this week, watching a pair of World War II action movies. As with The Vast of Night and Cosmos, these features take very different approaches to the same topic.

I started on Tuesday night with Force 10 from Navarone, the 1978 feature directed by Guy Hamilton. Only after I began researching this post did I realize that this is a sequel to the 1961 film The Guns of Navarone starring Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn and Richard Harris. Both pictures are based on books by Alistair MacLean. The English author, who served in the Royal Navy during World War II, wrote more than two dozen novels that served as the basis for 17 feature films, including Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare, both released in 1968.

Force 10 from Navarone doesn’t involve Navarone, a fictitious Greek isle that served as a crucial artillery base for Nazi Germany. In fact, Force 10’s prologue quickly recaps the earlier picture’s exploits, which I mistakenly thought was previewing the picture to come. I suppose this is because the movie’s title is Force 10 from Navarone, which made me expect Navarone. But the two movies share at least three of the same characters and a general story of Allied commandos infiltrating enemy territory and destroying an important piece of infrastructure.

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Who goes there? The impressive independent movies ‘The Vast of Night’ and ‘Cosmos’ answer this question in very different ways

July 20, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 20, 2020

On Sunday, I watched a rare movie double-feature, although my viewings were separated by a few hours. The two pictures I watched have a few things in common. They were both independent productions made on shoestring budgets, they were both officially released last year, they both take place over the course of a single night, and they both involve possible contact with alien intelligence.

The better known of these movies is The Vast of Night, which toured the film-festival circuit last year before being released to drive-in theaters in mid-May and premiering exclusively on the Amazon Prime video streaming service later that month. The narrative, which is presented as an episode of an ersatz version of The Twilight Zone, is set entirely in and around the fictitious village of Cayuga, New Mexico, home to 492 souls.

The film focuses on local overnight disc jockey Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) and his young pal, 16-year-old Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), who holds down an evening shift as the town’s telephone operator. Odd things start taking place almost from the moment Fay sits down at her post on a dark autumnal night toward the end of the 1950s. Phone calls are cut off, a frantic woman reports a strange object in the sky over her property, and weird noises blot out part of Everett’s top-of-the-hour newscast on WOTW*.

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‘Iron Man 2’ maintains the zippiness of its predecessor while broadening the foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe

July 18, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 18, 2020

Well, I finally saw Iron Man 2, the 2010 Marvel Comics movie that many fans have hated practically since the moment it was released.

I’m an exception to the fandom in that I liked Iron Man 3, which I saw in a theater shortly after its 2013 release. I have an advantage over comic book devotees in that the supervillain the Mandarin meant nothing to me, and therefore I wasn’t bothered by the grave disservice that the movie apparently did to the character.

I think I know why fans dislike Iron Man 2: Its final action sequence includes a rather anticlimactic beat. There’s also a whiny performance by Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, a rival industrialist to hero Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who ends up backing the major villain. Worst of all, there’s a rather dull 30- to 40-minute stretch leading up to the climactic sequence where we don’t get any real action. I’m willing to forgive these lapses, however, because on the whole IM2 is a solid follow-up to the ground-breaking 2008 original.

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The 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle ‘The Running Man’ is peak 1980s cinema

July 17, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 17, 2020

It’s hard to think of a movie that delivers as big a concentration of sheer 1980s-ness as The Running Man, the 1987 action-adventure flick.

The star is Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose first three big movie roles were as the title characters in Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Conan the Destroyer and The Terminator (both 1984). He was probably the biggest star of the 1980s, going on to make Predator (’87), The Running Man and Twins (’88) as part of a hot streak that lasted well into the mid-1990s.

The movie is based on a Stephen King novel published under the Richard Bachman pseudonym. The Internet Movie Database lists 15 feature films released from 1980 through 1989 that were either written by King or based on one of his stories or novels. The only two earlier filmed works with King connections were adaptations in 1976 (Carrie, the movie directed by Brian de Palma) and 1979 (Salem’s Lot, a two-part TV movie directed by Tobe Hooper).

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Short takes: ‘Neuromancer,’ ‘The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015’ and ‘High Life’

July 12, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 12, 2020

Author’s note: The third and last work discussed in this post, High Life, has a well-deserved R rating because of sexual situations and violence. As such, that part of the post may not be suitable for young and/or sensitive readers. MEM

Last week I finished listening to an audio version of Neuromancer. William Gibson’s 1984 debut novel plunges the reader into an alternative 21st century full of wonder and depravity. The book is a tour de force, populated with vivid characters and boiling over with amazing ideas about the directions future society might take and the abilities its technology might impart.

The reader’s proxy in this adventure is Case, only in his mid-20s but as jaded as any film noir private eye on the wrong side of middle age. The story opens in Chiba City, a free-wheeling Japanese port where the American has given up hope of repairing the delicate brain implants that were sabotaged by the former employer from whom he’d stolen. Because Case is now unable to jack into cyberspace, where he once pulled off illicit exploits as a data cowboy, the expatriate has begun arranging extremely shady drug deals motivated by his mostly subconscious desire to goad someone into murdering him.

This elaborate scheme for self-abnegation is interrupted by a blank-eyed American man named Armitage and his bodyguard, a teched-out mercenary named Molly. They arrange for Case’s implants to be repaired so he can pull a mysterious job. The affair takes the trio and a small number of associates to the Sprawl, the metropolitan conglomeration that has overtaken most of American’s Eastern Seaboard; Istanbul, where Old World architecture and social mores mix uneasily with contemporary architecture, technology and authoritarianism; and Freeside, an immense cigar-shaped habitat orbiting the Earth where the decadent rich go to play.

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Short takes: ‘Stagecoach’ and ‘The End of October’

July 8, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 8, 2020

Many years ago, a textbook for my college film course contained a very enthusiastic passage about Stagecoach, John Ford’s 1939 Western. I have only the vaguest recollection of what it said (although it’s possible I still have the text somewhere — locating it is a project for another day). I think the author or authors were enthusiastic about the movie’s tight pacing, its character-driven plotting, and some well-executed action sequences.

I got around to watching the movie a few days ago when I noticed that it’s available on one of the streaming services I use. My reaction to the picture was… different from that of my textbook’s author(s).

The tale is set in the Arizona territory perhaps a decade after the end of the Civil War. The picture opens with a brief prologue in which some Army officers establish that Native American warriors led by Geronimo are raiding white settlers. Then we see the titular stagecoach arrive in a dusty town. As the horses are changed out, passenger Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) and driver Buck (Andy Devine) disembark to develop the plot.

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On revisiting Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ fantasy epic

June 23, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 23, 2020

Although I haven’t left the house to socialize since March 15, I have not spent a lot of my abundant free time watching TV or movies. I have devoted a lot of hours to playing Boggle, and I have squandered time watching short videos.

I made an exception earlier this month, however, when I devoted five evenings to rewatching Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was filmed in one go and released in December of 2001, 2002 and 2003, respectively. I own the special extended editions of the first two movies, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, and I wasn’t willing to sit through either one in a single night. I wound up doing that for the finale, The Return of the King, of which I own a regular-edition DVD (never opened until last week, incidentally); the finale is three hours and 12 minutes long, so even that was a significant investment of time.

I loved these movies when they were first released. They look great — elaborate sets and lavish costumes and props were supplemented by a great cast, led by Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf the Grey. Moreover, the special effects were excellent for their time. And the production utilized literally dozens of striking New Zealand spots in to stand in for the vast fantasy realm of Middle-Earth. (Indeed, hundreds of thousands of tourists annually flock to Jackson’s native land to visit filming locations used in his Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.) Howard Shore’s tremendous trio of scores rounds things off.

The scripts were penned by the director with two regular collaborators, Fran Walsh (his wife) and Philippa Boyens; another Jackson colleague, Stephen Sinclair, is also credited for the screenplay of The Two Towers. To someone like me, who was and remains very casually acquainted with J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal fantasy novels, they capture the spirit of the source material while making it fairly accessible to the viewer.

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Short takes: ‘The Lottery, and Other Stories,’ ‘Oona Out of Order’ and ‘Monsters’

June 14, 2020
Combination image: ‘The Lottery, and Other Stories,‘ ‘Oona Out of Order’ and ‘Monsters.’

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 14, 2020

The Lottery, and Other Stories is an anthology that shows off Shirley Jackson’s versatility and talent.

The tales, all evidently published in 1948 and 1949, largely eschew the horror genre of the title story. They instead capture moments in the lives of ordinary women and a handful of men in early and mid-century America. Some of these people are quietly suffering; others are doing fine but are about to endure an unforeseen calamity. All too often, looming forces are poised to disrupt every last scrap of normality to which Jackson’s characters cling.

In the opening story, “The Intoxicated,” a drunk partygoer steps into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and has a straightforward conversation with a teenager girl about her visions of an apocalyptic future. The nameless protagonist of “The Demon Lover,” a 36-year-old Manhattan resident, awakens on what she believes will be the day of her wedding to Jamie Harris; when he fails to show up, she sets out to find him. She ventures first to his home address where, it turns out, he was apartment-sitting for a couple who have just returned from a trip. Matters devolve from there.

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Short takes: ‘Alice Isn’t Dead,’ ‘Glass Houses’ and ‘Explorers’

June 6, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 6, 2020

Joseph Fink adapted Alice Isn’t Dead, his striking 2018 horror novel, from a podcast of the same name. Both book and podcast describe a harrowing series of journeys undertaken by Keisha Taylor, a chronically anxious woman who becomes a long-haul trucker after seeing her missing wife in the background of a television news shot.

Alice’s long disappearance is far from the strangest thing that will plague Keisha during the tale, which was written by the co-creator of the acclaimed Welcome to Night Vale fiction podcast. In the first chapter, a man with loose skin begins to consume someone, a sight that terrifies Keisha and sends her fleeing into the gathering night. But the “Thistle Man,” as she calls the monster based on its shirt, begins to stalk Keisha, setting up a confrontation she is powerless to avoid.

The Thistle Man turns out to be part of an array of shadowy forces preying upon Americans who happen to be unruly, unwary or unlucky. Keisha will discover a secret town, hidden bases, people possessing supernatural abilities and even a potential ally or two as she fights for her life and tries to repair an existence that seemed irreparably broken after her wife vanished.

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Short takes: ‘Station Eleven,’ ‘Supernova Era’ and ‘House on Haunted Hill’

May 23, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 23, 2020

Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, Station Eleven, got a lot of buzz when it came out in 2014. I finally got around to reading it this month.

It’s a strange but not entirely novel experience to read about a pandemic as one unfolds in real life. Fortunately, as disruptive as Covid-19 is, it isn’t nearly as contagious nor as deadly as the flu that kills at least 90 percent of the human race and destroys civilization in the near future depicted in Station Eleven.

Mandel’s narrative covers several characters’ experiences over a number of years both before and after the flu outbreak. The unifying theme, however, is that many of the characters — notably former paparazzo cum aspiring paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary, former aspiring artist cum shipping executive Miranda Carroll, former aspiring actor cum high-priced consultant Clark Thompson — are all linked to Arthur Leander, the famed screen actor who dies of a heart attack during a Toronto production of King Lear the night before Westerners start succumbing to flu at an alarming rate.

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Short takes: ‘The Iron Giant,’ ‘13 Ghosts’ and ‘Ad Astra’

April 27, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 27, 2020

The 1999 animated feature The Iron Giant is a science-fiction story set in the late 1950s in Rockwell, a quiet coastal village in Maine. The night after an immense robot plunges into the ocean during a major storm, it’s discovered and then rescued by a smart, lonely boy with the unlikely name of Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal).

The pair strike up a friendship, but this is the height of the Cold War, and foreigners — be they Russians, robots or extraterrestrials (let alone extraterrestrial robots) — are not looked upon kindly. When a haughty federal agent named Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) comes nosing around the farm where Hogarth lives with his mom, Annie (Jennifer Aniston), Hogarth is forced into an uneasy alliance with Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.), the beatnik artist who runs the local scrapyard.

The movie is loosely adapted from The Iron Man: A Story in Five Nights, a bedtime tale that Ted Hughes devised for his children and published in 1968. (The British poet, who died in 1998, is credited as a consultant on the film.)

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Short takes: ‘Unknown,’ ‘The Last Days on Mars’ and ‘Sucker Punch’

April 12, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 12, 2020

Author’s note: By necessity, my review of Sucker Punch deals with sex and sexuality and therefore may not be appropriate for all readers. MEM

Dr. Martin Harris, a mild-mannered, well-to-do university professor from New Hampshire, flies into Berlin with Liz, his beautiful wife; in a few days, he’s going to make a presentation at a prominent biotechnology conference. As Liz checks into the hotel, Martin realizes that his briefcase is missing and hurriedly hops into a cab in an effort to retrieve it. En route to the airport, he’s knocked unconscious during a car accident.

A few days later, Martin awakens from a coma without identification or any memory of how he landed in a hospital bed in a country where he doesn’t speak the language. As he soon learns, he’s also bereft of his spouse and the life he once had. Liz insists that she’s never seen the injured man and that she’s married to a different Dr. Martin Harris. The doppelgänger has the same memories as the injured man; he also has the same souvenirs.

Even accounting for his traumatic brain injury, “Martin Harris” (Liam Neeson of Schindler’s List and Taken) can’t understand why some of his memories of his marriage to Liz (January Jones of X-Men: First Class and Mad Men) are so detailed. What’s more, he’s concerned that a man he’s never met may be trying to kill him…

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J.J. Abrams caps an iconic space-opera franchise with the flashy but not necessarily compelling ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’

February 20, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 20, 2020

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the 11th entry in the blockbuster space opera, opens with a blast from the past. As the series’ signature opening crawl that follows the film’s title (see previous sentence) and episode number (nine) announces:

The dead speak! The galaxy has heard a mysterious broadcast, a threat of REVENGE in the sinister voice of the late EMPEROR PALPATINE.

GENERAL LEIA ORGANA dispatches secret agents to gather intelligence, while REY, the last hope of the Jedi, trains for battle against the diabolical FIRST ORDER.

Meanwhile, Supreme Leader KYLO REN rages in search of the phantom Emperor, determined to destroy any threat to his power…

Director J.J. Abrams, who directed the 2009 Star Trek reboot and its first sequel and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, among other projects, and who helped create the TV series Alias and Lost, thusly sets up the climax to the third Star Wars trilogy before a single planet, object or person appears on screen. If The Force Awakens, which launched the franchise’s latest trio in 2015, recapitulated George Lucas’s first Star Wars, retroactively titled A New Hope (1977), and The Last Jedi (2017) took The Empire Strikes Back (1980) as its template, then The Rise of Skywalker, released in December 2019, is here to replay 1983’s Return of the Jedi for audiences young and old.

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Michael Crichton and the origins and nature of the technothriller

January 14, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 14, 2019 2020

Any history of the technothriller subgenre is bound to include Michael Crichton, the Harvard-trained physician who penned multiple bestsellers and created the hit television drama ER. For the last three decades, Crichton has been best known for his pair of dinosaurs-run-amok novels, Jurassic Park and The Lost World.

The splashiness of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie adaptation and its four (!) sequels (not to mention three pinball tables) makes it easy to forget that Crichton’s flair for combining science and thrills has been on display ever since 1969.

That’s the year that Crichton, who died in 2008, published The Andromeda Strain. This story of a research team desperately trying to stop the spread of a mysterious disease was both the first book to appear under Crichton’s own name and his first bestseller. But it represented an important commercial — and dare I say literary — development in its own right.

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Marriage, money and inequality haunt the four March sisters of Greta Gerwig’s strangely delightful ‘Little Women’

December 30, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 30, 2019

Little Women, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel, is a charming chronicle of a Massachusetts family, particularly the challenges faced by the four young daughters.

Alcott’s book, published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, was based on her own life. In reality, her family was beset by poverty and hardship, and the writing of the novel for which she became famous was strictly undertaken for cash. “I plod away although I don’t enjoy this sort of things,” The Sun reports her as having (ungrammatically) confessed in her diary.

Gerwig, here making her third directorial outing, and her second as writer-director after Lady Bird, casts proceedings in a decidedly more glamorous light. The costumes are glorious; the March family’s home is handsome and spacious, if a bit blandly decorated; and writer stand-in Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) is fiercely proud of her story, which she sells to a mercenary publisher named Dashwood (Tracy Letts) in the movie’s final act. (She also begins writing it on her own initiative, unlike in real life.)

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Short takes: ‘Oblivion,’ ‘Redline’ and ‘Lifeforce’

November 9, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Nov. 9, 2019

One could be forgiven for having forgotten Tom Cruise’s 2013 action vehicle, Oblivion, which sank into — well, you know — seemingly within days of its release. This was somewhat unjust, as the movie turns out to be a pretty zippy science fiction actioner.

Cruise stars as Jack Harper, technician for — tower? sector? something, anyway — No. 49 on post-apocalyptic Earth in 2077. As he explains in the opening narration, humanity has survived an invasion by a mysterious alien race, but only barely. Earth is in shambles, in part because the aliens smashed the moon, causing immense earthquakes and tidal waves, and in part because humans used nuclear weapons, converting vast swathes of the planet into radioactive wastelands.

What’s left of the population has decamped to the Saturnian moon of Titan as massive hovering machines rehabilitate the home planet. Harper and his communications officer/controller, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, also of Birdman and the Nicholas Cage vehicle Mandy), who have had their memories wiped, help guard massive installations that convert seawater to energy. These facilities and the hovering armed drones that patrol the area are occasionally pestered by scavengers, menacing remnants of the alien force who tend to stick to the shadows.

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‘Apollo 11’ vividly recreates man’s first voyage to another planet

March 29, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 29, 2019

Apollo 11, the new film directed and edited by Todd Douglas Miller, is a gripping documentary chronicling astronauts’ first landing on the moon.

The picture proceeds in strict chronological order, beginning as the massive Saturn V rocket is slowly moved to its launch pad and ending once the three-man crew has been sealed into a mobile quarantine unit after being recovered from the Pacific Ocean by the U.S.S. Hornet.

Most any reader of this blog knows the outcome of the mission, but things remain lively thanks to several elements, foremost among them the inherent drama of the events being depicted.

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Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man’ offers a frosty portrayal of a pilot’s historic journey to the moon

October 15, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Oct. 15, 2018

First Man, director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his acclaimed 2016 feature film La La Land, documents how Neil Armstrong progressed from being one of a handful of test pilots pushing past Earth’s atmosphere to the first individual to set foot on another celestial body.

The movie serves as a sequel of sorts to The Right Stuff, writer-director Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about America’s first astronauts. Indeed, Chazelle’s movie was adapted (by screenwriter Josh Singer, a co-author of The Post) from a 2005 authorized biography of the same title by Auburn University space historian James R. Hansen.

Kaufman began his movie with Chuck Yeager’s breaking the sound barrier in 1947 and ended roughly 15 years later as NASA approaches the end of Project Mercury, the first crewed American orbital missions. Chazelle and Singer start their story in the early 1960s, literally seconds before Armstrong embarks on a hazardous suborbital flight in an X-15 rocket plane and a few months before the civilian test pilot is selected for Gemini, NASA’s second set of crewed missions.

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Rebels on the run: The evil First Order tirelessly hunts good guys in the sprawling ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

May 4, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 3, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth entry in the projected nine-movie space opera sequence that George Lucas launched in 1977, is a messy but entertaining addition to the saga.

Writer-director Rian Johnson, who’s best known for the 2012 time-traveling drama Looper, splits his sequel to 2015’s The Force Awakens into four interwoven threads. All are set into motion by the nefarious First Order’s pursuit of the Resistance — now in the process of being rebranded as the Rebellion, just like the insurgency from Lucas’s original trilogy. This premise (or at least the timing in play here) is rather confusing, because the narrative involving Rey (Daisy Ridley) and self-exiled Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) picks up literally right where it ended in the preceding film’s coda, which happened shortly after the good guys won a major victory over wicked Snoke (motion-capture legend Andy Serkis), the First Order’s shriveled, misshapen Supreme Leader.

At any rate, as an embittered Skywalker — the missing man being hunted by both sides in Episode VII — adamantly refuses to train Rey in the ways of the magical Force or do anything else to aid the Rebellion, most of the other characters have hastily evacuated their compromised (once-hidden?) base and are fleeing at top speed. A powerful First Order fleet pursues, lurking just outside of cannon range until the inevitable moment the insurgents run out of fuel.

Bereft of outside assistance and perceiving their plight as hopeless, hotheaded pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and First Order defector Finn (John Boyega) devise a plan to disable the new technology that Snoke and his minions have used to track the good guys’ jumps through hyperspace. Finn and his new friend, technician Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) visit a lavish casino in hopes of finding and co-opting a codebreaker with the ability to infiltrate the First Order fleet’s hulking flagship, the Supremacy. Dameron stays behind with the remnants of the rebel convoy, attempting to persuade the tentative Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) to take decisive action in lieu of General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), who was put into a coma by a First Order attack.

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