Under the Dome premiere delivers the goods

The premiere episode of CBS drama Under the Dome, based on Stephen King’s highly acclaimed 2009 novel, delivered giant ratings when it debuted a few days ago. I haven’t read the novel yet and I understand that several plot elements of the  TV show vary from that of the novel. Given that the TV script is written by Brian K. Vaughan, that’s perfectly fine by me. You see, Mr. Vaughan wrote the outstanding post-apocalyptic graphic novel series Y: The Last Man from 2002-08, which explored what would happen in a world where every male living being suddenly died. The series – much like Max Brooks’ World War Z – used a post-apocalyptic setting to evaluate how social and political structures would respond to a calamitous event…how strongly would the veneer of civilization hold in the face of the unthinkable.

I think Mr. Vaughan is bringing much the same thinking to his writing on Under the Dome. How will the citizens of a small town in North-eastern US respond when a single event takes loved ones away and leaves you having to defend your way of life against forces that you have no understanding of? Some people look to take advantage of such a situation while it brings out the best in others, frequently from those who have never demonstrated much altruism in normal times.

Another novel which explores a similar situation, although in a spatially inverted manner, is Eric Flint’s 1632. In that novel, a town in West Virginia mysteriously is transported into the year 1632 and transposed into the middle of Germany. I found many parallels in the story structure of the early chapters of 1632 and the pilot episode of Dome.

I really hope the showrunners of Dome can keep the momentum and quality going into the 2nd episode and beyond. I had similarly high expectations with J.J. Abrams’ series Revolution a few months ago. The premiere episode was directed by Iron Man‘s Jon Favreau and was really good. Thereafter, it went downhill, primarily because of the irritating Matheson family, especially Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) and to a lesser extent her mother Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell). Even the presence of intriguing characters like Major Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito) wasn’t enough to save the show for me.

Similarly, I noticed that the pilot episode of Under the Dome had great credentials – executive produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the man who directed the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Hopefully with the solid source material from Stephen King and the adapted writing from Brian Vaughan, the subsequent episodes will maintain standards. The other reason I have hope is that the casting seems to be better than that of Revolution. Although the father-son combo of ‘Big Jim’ and Junior Rennie are going to be a handful to deal with, there are likeable characters like Linda the cop (Natalie Martinez, who had such a good role as the cop’s wife in last year’s End of Watch), Julia the journalist (Rachel Lefevre, who plays the vampire Victoria in the Twilight movies), the precocious kid Joe McAlister (played by Colin Ford) and the mysterious stranger ‘Barbie’ (Mike Vogel) who just missed leaving town before the dome fell.

The show is a bit violent and gory, but what would you expect of an adaptation of a Stephen King novel? And I have to admit, the bit with the cow was one of the best scenes in the episode!

I understand that the scientific explanation of the dome will differ in the show vs. the novel (although I haven’t read the novel, I know what causes the dome to happen), so that’s a good trick by the showrunners to keep people hooked till the end of the series, even if they’ve read the book. The only thing I am uncertain about is the likelihood that CBS will make this an open-ended story lasting for months (and therefore extending beyond its current 13-episode first season order), unlike the King novel in which the story lasts just a week or so. I am not keen on an endless wild goose chase like Lost (for which Mr. Vaughan was a story editor and co-producer for several episodes, by the way), where ultimately the sub-plots get so convoluted and characters become increasingly weird, that it becomes tough for the writers to resolve the story in a sensible way. No matter how good a story is, there can always be too much of a good thing!


Summer movie rankings and scorecard

With the summer half done, I thought it was a good time to take stock of the movies I’ve seen so far.

My #1 movie of the summer is World War Z (8.5/10): (SPOILERS AHEAD)

When I first heard that the film adaptation of Max Brooks’ celebrated novel was going to be substantially different from the book, I had my misgivings. What was the point of adapting a book, if you were going to change the story and potentially leave out everything that made it so good? The novel is structured as a series of interviews with the survivors of a 10-year long global war against zombies, which eventually the human race won. The interviews, which take place ten years after the end of the war, act as a commentary on the political, economic and social state of different countries across the world. The novel touches upon everything from black market organ trade to apartheid to fudging of test results by pharmaceutical companies. Then came the first trailer and I was appalled that the film makers had re-defined the inherent properties of zombies, making them fast-moving and seemingly capable of coordinated attacks. But after watching the trailer a few times, I had to admit, this version of zombies did behave like humans would if they had been infected by a mutated strain of rabies, which is what the novel indicates as the source of the plague. Anyway, I watched the movie earlier this week and if one puts aside all the comparisons with the book and the news about the troubled film shoot, it turned out to be a smart, incredibly plausible globe-spanning thriller giving the viewer a real sense of having to race against time before humanity is wiped out.

A lot of the credit must go to Brad Pitt, who like Ben Affleck in Argo, plays a capable, intelligent professional who calmly goes about his job and deals with crises without any sort of melodrama. Normally this genre of film is made by directors like Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich and is accompanied by all sorts of inane dialogue. In spite of the fact that the script had to be re-written and polished by multiple writers, the realistic behavior of the lead characters makes this feel like something that could happen to any of us.

The movie has 4 major set pieces, one in a Philadelphia traffic jam (scary and so real), one at a military base in South Korea, one in Jerusalem (tragic) and the last one in a medical facility in Wales. The film makers re-wrote and re-shot the entire third act of the film, switching from an epic battle in Russia to that tense cat-and-mouse game in Wales. I think it was a brave choice, because for a global disaster epic like this, the playbook says it must end in some sort of climactic battle. Instead, the change of pace really works without compromising suspense or the audience’s emotional engagement. I contrast this with the last act of Man of Steel, which surely takes the prize for the worst case of mind-numbing cinematic violence seen so far this summer.

There has been some online criticism of how overly calm some of the people are in the face of all this death and destruction, but I feel this is the reaction of critics who have become too used to the cinematic version of grief…very public and visual, never private. In fact, I feel that the small touches pack the biggest emotional impact – Brad Pitt’s character Gerry Lane reacts with a mix of shame and exhaustion after making an insensitive remark about another survivor’s family, Lane’s wife’s face silently crumples as she struggles to contact him via satellite phone, a team of Black Ops commandos stoically goes out to face almost certain death.

I’m hoping that WWZ makes enough money at the box office that they will complete the planned trilogy of films, perhaps even retaining some of the events from the book like the South African ‘solution’ and the Battle of Yonkers. But even if not, it stands on its own as one of the best disaster films made; at the same level as my other favorites like Independence Day, Deep Impact and War of the Worlds (all of which were much more American than global, in terms of storytelling scope).

Listed below are the remaining summer films I’ve seen in order of preference. Two big gaps in the resume are The Great Gatsby and Fast and Furious 6, all of which I hope to watch before the summer’s out:-

#2: Star Trek Into Darkness (8/10)

#3: Despicable Me 2  (7.5/10)- I just watched the preview this morning. It was as entertaining as the trailer promised it would be. Gru has to be sweetest dad in movie history (at least, in animation movie history) and the Minions must surely be one of the funniest supporting characters ever, ranking alongside Timon & Pumba as well as the Penguins and King Julien from the Madagascar films . The new character Lucy Wilde played by Kristen Wiig (who I’m not a fan of in her live action movies, by the way) is an excellent addition to the cast. To some extent, one could complain that the movie is just a series of skits/ comedy set pieces strung together, but when all those sequences are so funny, who’s to complain. I think I was laughing more than some of the kids in the hall today. And of course, my favorite part is when the head of the Anti-Villain League introduces himself “I am the league’s director Silas Ramsbottom”, followed by sniggers from two of the Minions. Steve Carrel’s voice acting of course, is beyond awesome.

#4: Iron Man 3: (7/10)

#5: Epic: (7/10): Perhaps the most beautifully animated film of 2013 so far. Great eco-friendly concept, although the bad guys were very stereotyped. Lovely theme song “Rise Up” by Beyonce will definitely go into my iPod.

#6: Oblivion: (7/10)

#7: Man of Steel: (7/10)

It seems a bit unfair to have Man of Steel all the way at the bottom of the list, but the scores for the last 4 films are all level at 7/10 and if that last act had been handled better, then quite possibly MoS could have ranked as high as #2. For me, the summer season ends with the release of Elysium in early August. But the 3 biggies to watch out for before that are The Lone Ranger, Pacific Rim and The Wolverine…all worth spending the extra coin to see on IMAX 3D! Roland Emmerich’s White House Down starring Channing Tatum (the biggest box office draw of 2012, but yawn for me) is the possible joker in the pack.

Man of Steel flies high!

In the first act of Man of Steel, the actors wear the elaborate costumes of a Greek tragedy and enact a plot from a Shakespearean one. There is a military uprising, talk of treason, a blasphemous act and a Brutal slaying. (yes, there is a reason the ‘B’ is in caps). The actors delivering the stoic lines are certainly well chosen for it – Russell Crowe appears very stately as Jor-El and Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (who had quite a good role in the 2008 thriller Vantage Point) who plays his wife Lara lives through the loss of child, husband and world with an impressive degree of forbearance. The actors who play the misguided Krypton council have been cast for their strong facial bone structure. And of course, there is the star of the show – Michael Shannon, playing General Zod, manages to impress as a villain in spite of his strong American accent (all the best villains usually have British or European accents, don’t they?). First of all, kudos to screenwriter David Goyer and producer Chris Nolan for having the smarts to take one of the most iconic villainous roles in the DC movie universe and insert it into the retelling of the origin story (I could not have put up with another helping of a cinematic Lex Luthor, after Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey). Second, kudos to whoever picked Oscar-nominated character actor Michael Shannon to play Zod; I had never imagined that anyone could top Terrence Stamp’s performance in Superman II (1980). But Shannon is the real deal. The man has played some disturbing characters in the past 4 years including his breakout performance in Revolutionary Road in 2008. Michael Shannon brings a level of physicality and menace to the character of Zod that is truly frightening, all the more so because unlike Gen. Zod from Superman II who was just a megalomaniac, this Zod actually believes he is the true Son of Krypton and Superman is the traitor to the cause.

And ultimately, this movie is about each man (oh that’s right, they’re aliens) having to decide where his moral center lies.

But before we get to that point, there’s a whole lot of story to cover.

We get to see a beautifully visualized Krypton (with an interesting insectoid design sensibility), falling to its inevitable apocalypse while the spacecraft carrying Kal-El wormholes its way towards Earth. We then cut to the present day where a grown-up Clark Kent playing a strong/ silent worker on a fishing trawler finds himself part of a spectacular set-piece where he puts some of his powers into play.

Director Zack Snyder plays liberally with flashbacks and that’s where we are introduced to Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Martha and Jonathan Kent respectively. I am a fan of both actors and very much enjoyed their grounded interpretation of these important roles. Costner has relatively little to play with, but there is a very memorable and poignant moment at the end of the tornado scene that will stay flash-frozen in my memory. Some of Clark Kent’s most ‘human’ moments came – not surprisingly – with his mother Martha Kent and these moments interspersed across the runtime of the film give it some much-needed breathing space. I think Russell Crowe, inclusive of his post-corporeal existence, eventually gets more screen time than Kevin Costner, but I don’t think there was really much chemistry in those scenes with his son (and why should there be, you may ask, when the son is talking to an image, projected by an Artificial Intelligence filtered through the consciousness of the father he never knew!).

Amy Adams is a pleasant surprise as Lois Lane. Margot Kidder was absolutely irritating in the Christopher Reeve films and Kate Bosworth didn’t even register in Superman Returns (2006). I was worried that Amy Adams would go the Margot Kidder way, as she eminently is capable of playing irritating and neurotic characters. But she was surprisingly ‘normal’ and sensible in this movie and I’m not sure if the credit for that goes to director Snyder or screenwriter David Goyer (neither of whom I would credit that degree of sensitivity) or to Amy Adams herself.

And so of course, we get to the 2nd half of the movie which features some seriously impressive action on a scale that we have perhaps never seen in a superhero movie – and by that, I include even Marvel’s The Avengers from last year. At some point, I found myself wondering how Superman could really claim to be protecting the Earth when he was partly responsible for all that destruction. Because of the almost total absence of humor, this will never be as beloved a superhero film as the Iron Man films or The Avengers. But, it is certainly an entertaining and suitably contemporary reincarnation of one of the most often-told stories in comic book lore. It won’t take long before Warner Bros. greenlights the sequel and while Henry Cavill will never be the equal of Christopher Reeve in this role, I think he will grow into it quite well if given the chance over the course of a sequel or three.

Which book to read? – Kim Stanley Robinson to the rescue!

I recently finished Hugh Howey’s Wool Omnibus, which combines his 5 self-published short stories into a single book. The first (and shortest) story is probably the best, as it sets up an intriguing premise and ends by making it even more intriguing! The success of that story led to a longer sequel, which led to an even longer one and so forth. Mr. Howey clearly felt the obligation to flesh out his characters and add increasing levels of story detail in each successive story. A lot of that additional detail is welcome, but sometimes I felt that I just wanted him to get on with it. In a sense, that is a positive commentary on how engaging the story was and how desperately I wanted to find out how our world had come to this post-apocalyptic state of affairs.

Anyway, after I finished Wool, I decided to start on Howey’s follow-up trilogy called the Shift series. This is part of the “Wooliverse” and all the stories (including the upcoming book titled Dust – which apparently will tie up all the loose ends) are referred to as the ‘Silo series’. Well, the first of these Shift novels, called First Shift-Legacy tells us how the apocalypse happened. The story is structured in 2 streams – one taking place in the lead-up to the apocalypse and the other stream taking place several decades into the apocalypse, showing life in one of the Silos. I was looking forward to a continuation of the story in Second Shift, but I was disappointed to see that there were a new set of characters and I was not really in the mood to invest into that, so I have opted out of reading it for the time being.

I then spent a day desperately trying to start off on a new book, but unable to figure out what sub-genre I wanted to get into. My choices included Hugh Howey’s own young adult scifi novel called Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue, Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest scifi epic 2312, C.J. Cherryh’s award winning scifi novel Downbelow Station (named by Locus magazine in 1987 as one of the 50 best scifi novels of all time) or S.M. Stirling’s post-apocalyptic novel Dies the Fire which describes a world in which electricity and gunpowder cease to exist (the ongoing J.J. Abrams TV series Revolution is a poor rip-off of the concept).

I sampled each of these books, trying out the first couple of pages to get a feel for the writing style and the tone of the story. Ultimately, none of them seemed to appeal to me. Just as I was at a loss, I realized I had another book by Kim Stanley Robinson with me, the very highly acclaimed The Years of Rice and Salt; I knew this book had something to do with the Dark Ages and the Black Death, so I didn’t think it would satisfy my ‘scifi craving’. Nevertheless a quick scan through a wiki entry revealed that it is in fact an alternate history novel, chronicling a period of several centuries right up to our current time. It builds on a scenario wherein the Black Death killed off 99% of Europe’s population thereby shifting the balance of global power to Asia over the next 700 years.

Suddenly this seemed both interesting and relevant to me, so I’ve started off on the book earlier today and raced through the first 20 pages (700+ to go). It certainly has me hooked and I can now rest at ease, knowing my reading needs are taken care of for the next few weeks! It will be my 6th K.S Robinson book after the excellent (and politically dense) Mars Trilogy and the less memorable Icehenge and Memory of Whiteness. It’s a busy month at work, so there’s no telling how long I’m going to take to finish it. I hope I’ll have the energy to write about it once I’m done.

The Last Stand: Schwarzenegger in an entertaining comeback movie

I try not to let the private lives of movie stars get in the way of my enjoyment of their films. I can never understand why American audiences have a problem watching a Tom Cruise movie just because he jumped on a couch. Similarly, when it comes to Arnold Schwarzenegger, what I think of his performance as California governor or of his affair with his housekeeper does not get into my head when I sit down to watch one of his films.

So, it was with much anticipation and curiosity that I decided to watch the former Guv’s comeback vehicle – The Last Stand – released earlier this year. The film had reasonably good reviews (for a film in the action genre) with a metacritic score of 54, but completely collapsed at the box office, with a total take of USD 12 million in the US and another USD 25 million elsewhere in the world. The film is directed by Jee-Won Kim, who made the over-the-top ‘kimchi western The Good, the Bad, the Weird in 2008 and the creepy horror/ thriller A Tale of Two Sisters in 2003.

The Last Stand has great stunts and camera work, but of course audiences take all this for granted these days, fed as they are on a diet of F & the F, Bourne and Die Hard films. Successful action films are the ones that have characters with some back story, who are realistic and who have inter-relationships that we care about. First time writer Andrew Knauer seems to have got some of that right. In fact, this spec script actually made the famed Black List in 2009.

Needless to say, it’s always the bad guys who are interesting and colourful; we have escaped drug honcho Gabriel Cortez (played by Spanish actor Eduardo Noriega) and his chief henchman Burrell (Swedish actor Peter Stormare who always plays slightly unhinged characters like the one who famously fed someone into a wood chipper in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo). The Last Stand also has some entertaining characters on the good side. Let’s start with Arnold himself, who plays the small town sheriff; I like the fact that he plays his age and the script acknowledges it on more than one occasion. His deputy is played by veteran Puerto Rican actor Luis Guzman; Guzman has played the stereotypical Hispanic character in any number of films, usually as a bumbling bad guy with a very particular style of speaking; here he plays the bumbling good guy with a very particular style of speaking. In a sense, Mr. Guzman like Arnold, has essentially played himself in every film he has been in over the years! Also in the good guys’ corner, we have the ever-ridiculous star of Jackass, Johnny Knoxville…need one say more? He also seems to be playing himself, as usual. Jamie Alexander plays another one of the deputies while Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro’s acting skills are a bit wasted in a one-dimensional role as her boyfriend who is deputized when the bad guys come to town.

Arnold need all the help he can get from his team to defeat Cortez’ goons, but ultimately it boils down as usual to him and Cortez going at it mano a mano on the Mexican border. Once again, in keeping with the age of the character, it is a realistically short fight which Arnold wins because of his body weight and size.

So, overall I was quite happy with Arnold’s come-back vehicle and would place it on the same list as my other top Arnold movies of the past, listed in chronological order below:-

  • Terminator (1984)
  • Predator (1987)
  • Total Recall (1990)
  • Kindergarten Cop (1990)
  • Terminator 2 (1991)
  • True Lies (1994)
  • The Last Stand (2013)

Arnold will be back later this year with fellow muscle man Sly Stallone in Escape Plan which opens in October. Clearly neither of the men are able to draw crowds on their own, so it looks like they will have to rely on projects like the Expendables franchise or tag-team acts like the Escape Plan for box office success.