Archive for September, 2016


by Andrew Cook

I was asked to write about Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back for the countdown. Empire Strikes Back is one of the first films I fell in love with as a kid, and it’s an honor and joy to get to share my thoughts.

Empire Strikes Back is a wonderful film, and an immensely influential one that has defined our approach to sequels and mythological storytelling. It’s beautifully written, filmed, and scored, and Ben Burtt’s sound design is as essential as ever. Empire Strikes Back has a secret weapon, however, that takes it to a new level of depth: context. Empire Strikes Back has the privilege of being intricately connected to six other films, forming a thematic and conceptual nexus that makes each individual film more profound.

I’ll try not to spend too long on plot summary since I’m sure we’re all familiar, but I’d be remiss not to comment on how beautifully the film begins. The Empire Strikes Back opens by rendering the victory at the end of the previous film into a painfully short-lived respite. This is a great beginning in it’s own right, but is perhaps the first example of a great film being made greater by it’s inclusion in a whole. Over the series’ seven films, especially the prequel trilogy, Lucas and his collaborators build a theme of war as inherently Pyrrhic victory, of the need to put an end to violence and exist peacefully. Symbiosis, if you will. This theme begins in the previous film with Obi-Wan’s non-violent sacrifice, and it’s expanded upon here, but it only grows more powerful in subsequent films, and upon viewing the saga as a whole. From the total failure wrought by the heroes’ aggression in The Phantom Menace to the militaristic self-righteousness of the Jedi in Attack of the Clones to the moral decay of Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith, reverberations within the saga echo off each other. (more…)


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by Sam Juliano

Lauren Castillo can now properly be framed as a major picture book humanist of our day.  Her art may not project the humorous exuberance of Stephen Gamell, nor the socioeconomic impoverishment of Vera Williams but her work really aims for neither.  Castillo’s specialty is familial tenderness and endearment and by extension the human condition in its finest incarnation.  To be sure there are several other great author-illustrator humanists working today, but Castillo is among them.  Her captivating vignettes don’t attempt to mask the limitations of lower middle class struggles, but rather accentuate that no matter what life brings to its unsuspecting denizens, their siblings are what matter the most, and what ultimately brings resonance to all the madness.  The acclaimed author-illustrator won a well-deserved Caldecott Honor two years ago for Nana and the City, a tale of bonding in the big city fueled by child’s eye impressionism and followed that up with a stirring collaboration with renowned children’s literature veteran Eve Bunting in a wrenching examination of geographical upheaval that pushed the envelope for bittersweet resolve.  That tear-inducing effort, Yard Sale evinces the same melancholic tone and mood as its predecessor, and in the new book Twenty Yawns, which was penned by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley, once again Castillo treads affectionately on the familial camaraderie that means so much more than the various frolics and activities that define your typical vacation day.

Castillo has carried over the same timeless theme through three books -and retroactively even further back- even though the last two were written by two others, both rather iconic at that. This constitutes a remarkable unity when you consider that in two of the three works her illustrations were the sole mode of expression. Smiley’s first foray into the picture book literature is an economic distillation of the how some physically demanding summer activities will invariably wear down its exuberant protagonists, and how even in the horizontal position the specter of loved ones will lovingly intrude on the attempts to garner some needed respite.  After the first yawn crops up after a particularly vigorous tumble in the dunes, preceded by a burial in the sand, castle construction with the aid of plastic shovels, and circular swinging courtesy of human hands, the family is spent and mom calls for an early night. Indeed Smiley reveals that this beach session was the longest the family had ever endured, thus validating their enervated state.  After the intoxicating series of seafront camaraderie vignettes that includes two stunning double page panoramas, the transition to darkness and what transpires in the house is marked by an exquisite dusk panel, one signaled by the sun sinking below the horizon when “Strips of clouds were pink and red.”  Castillo’s watercolor wash of red, violet and yellow denotes the end of an especially arid day, one not easily set aside for the more nondescript nocturnal hues that eventually take over via a more all-encompassing makeover. (more…)

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21. Gattaca (1997)


by Adam Ferenz

October 1997, 106 minutes. Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Loren Dean, Gore Vidal.

Andrew Niccol’s opus, Gattaca, is not only among the smartest work of science fiction-different to Sci Fi-of the 1990s, but among the best films of that decade. From the opening sequence, during which the narrator, Vincent, describes his origin, through to our view of him as a child growing up, then moving away as a young man, we are introduced to a world similar to but vitally different from our own. This is a world in which genetic testing determines everything about you. Your life, in total. How others view you, and, perhaps, how you view yourself. Of course, as the tag line for the film says “there is no gene for the human spirit” and it is this theme which is so expertly explored. What makes us who we are? Is it the circumstances of our birth, our flesh and bones, or is it our desires, our determination, and our feelings? Where the film lands is clear. What makes the film great is that instead of being judged, the characters are explored in relation to how their beliefs have affected them.

The plot itself is basic: Vincent, now in his guise as Jerome, lives in a world where everyone is placed based on their genetic markers, based on testing done at birth, which determines probabilities of everything from physical to mental disorders and likely age of death. These are the Valids and the Invalids. To the former, he has become a “borrowed ladder” because he has faked his way out of the latter, to which he belongs. Vincent works at Gattaca, a space agency, as a navigator, on a coming mission to Titan. However, the chief mission director has been murdered and Vincent, observing the scene amidst a crowd, leaves behind an eyelash. This leads the police, of which his brother is a member, to search for him. Throw in Vincent’s blossoming love affair with the brilliant technician, Irene, and the very real consequences for being the perpetrator of a major fraud, and Vincent is in potentially dire trouble. That he escapes it is at times in doubt. What matters here is the journey, and that is where the film differentiates itself. (more…)

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by Sachin Gandhi

Jindrich Polák’s IKARIE XB 1 (1963) is one of the most significant Science fiction films ever made yet it is also relatively unknown even though its fingerprints can be found on numerous Sci-fi works such as Gene Roddenberry’s STAR TREK series (1966), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and even INTERSTELLAR (2014). In many ways, IKARIE XB 1 laid the template for future sci-fi works, especially regarding the interior spaceship design and multi-national crew, elements that are associated with STAR TREK. Michael Brooke has noted in his IKARIE XB 1 essay that both Gene Roddenberry and Stanley Kubrick had viewed Polák’s film while researching for their works. However, there appears to be more than simple set design that is borrowed from IKARIE XB 1. The camera movements and shots in IKARIE XB 1 around the spaceship command centre/bridge, corridors/hallways and outside the ship have been used in many other films over the decades. In addition, the depiction of crew dynamics and psychology of some crew members is another memorable aspect of IKARIE XB 1, although credit for that can be attributed in part to Stanislaw Lem.

The names of Pavel Jurácek, Jindrich Polák are listed in the screenplay credits of IKARIE XB 1 but the movie is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem as noted by Allan Fish in his memorable 2015 essay. Lem’s novel ‘Solaris’ is his more famous film adaptation but ‘The Magellan Nebula’ adapted into IKARIE XB 1 deserves worthy praise for exploring the dynamics of a multi-racial/multi-national crew consisting of both sexes and different age groups. Stanislaw Lem is known for his Science fiction writing but he also wrote non-fiction which brimmed with ideas about technology, artificial intelligence (although Lem called it “Intellectronics”), virtual reality (Lem called it “Phantomology”) and man’s place in the universe. Therefore, it is not a surprise that his work helped lay the groundwork for future Sci-fi films which showed machines/computers taking control and humans ultimately losing their mind on board a spaceship. The latter is something shown in IKARIE XB-1, although it takes place long after the music and dancing has stopped, long after all communication has ceased. (more…)

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by Stephen Mullen

Science Fiction can come in many forms. There are the big world building SF stories imagining whole worlds different from ours, however rigorously they might work out how they got to be different. Think Metropolis, Star Trek, Brazil, Children of Men. There are smaller world building exercises, where something alien or some invented technology is dropped into the world, and we see how the world reacts: think The Thing from Another World, or Under the Skin, or Midnight Special. But there is another type that isn’t, really, about world building at all. In these stories, something is changed – technology, usually, something that doesn’t exist in fact – and it is used to tell an intimate story, about a small group of people, with no direct implications for the world at large. (Though with indirect implications, maybe.) The Face of Another, a 1966 film by Hiroshi Teshigahara, from a novel by Kobo Abe, is this kind of story. It is science fiction because of one detail – the face itself – a detail used to justify what is mainly a psychological study, with horror overtones.

The story is this: a man (Okuyama) is burned in an accident, his face ruined, forcing him to wear bandages the rest of his life. He broods, alienated from his wife, his co-workers, everyone. He has a doctor, a psychiatrist who dabbles in science (making prosthetics) who says he will make him a face that will look exactly like a real face. He does so, all the time speculating on how this different face will change Okuyama’s psyche. Okuyama puts it on, and starts establishing a second life – but his ultimate intention is to try to seduce his wife with the new face. He tries it and it works all too well – he is horrified at her unfaithfulness. (He has made himself jealous.) When he confronts her, though, she says she knew all along, and thought he knew – thought this was a shared masquerade, to get past the complications of his bandages. She thought he was being considerate of her. (He is not considerate of anyone.) After that, whatever claims he had to sanity are gone – he attacks a woman in the street, and when the doctor bails him out, put him out of his misery – and then? Good question. This story is intercut with another story, a young woman with a terrible scar on her face, probably from Nagasaki, though half of her face is beautiful. She suffers and becomes increasingly anxious about the coming of another war, until she pulls her hair back and walks into the sea.




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by Allan Fish

(USA 2014 169m) DVD1/2

Worrying about our place in the dirt

p  Lynda Obst, Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan  d  Christopher Nolan  w  Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan  ph  Hoyte van Hoytema  ed  Lee Smith  m  Hans Zimmer  art  Nathan Crowley  cos  Mary Zophres  spc  John Kelso, Michael Clarke

Matthew McConaughey (Cooper), Anne Hathaway (Brand), Michael Caine (Prof.Brand), Jessica Chastain (Murph), David Gyasi (Romilly), Matt Damon (Mann), Mackenzie Foy (Murph, aged 10), Casey Affleck (Tom), David Oyelowo (principal), Ellen Burstyn (old Murph), John Lithgow (Donald), Wes Bentley (Doyle), Bill Irwin (voice of TARS),

In retrospect, Interstellar was always coming, and it’s with some irony that I say that.  Christopher Nolan has always been bending and readjusting cinematic dimensions.  In Memento he made a backwards movie, playing with narrative convention.  In The Prestige he played with perception, how our eyes and minds play tricks with us and allow ourselves to be fooled.  In Inception he played with the dimension walls within dreams, fitting them inside each other like Russian dolls.  After all that, what else is there but to try and bend the actual space-time continuum itself?  And what better year to do it than in the same year that a more traditional cinematic statue was being put up to Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything, which could even be the title of Nolan’s sci-fi opus. 

Nolan is rightly famed for his cold detachment and intellectual rigour; qualities without which his great films could not have existed.  “We’ve always defined ourselves by our ability to overcome the impossible”, Cooper says.  If only the film could prove it, but here he is seemingly fighting a paradox from the start; to save mankind requires bending the laws of space-time in a way that goes against the laws of physics (this isn’t Doctor Who, time can’t be rewritten).  Can the search for the impossible forgive his caving in to the sort of sentimentality associated with Close Encounters, Avatar, Gravity or that other McConaughey sci-fi piece, Contact?  Perhaps, when the ambition is greater than those films combined…

Even so, Caine is miscast as a scientific genius, there as if Nolan’s totem to guide him back to sanity.  Hathaway is another Hollywood woman doing the stupid thing to put the mission in jeopardy.  Chastain does her best but is merely a cipher and Burstyn’s cameo doesn’t even qualify as a token gesture.  McConaughey has one great scene – watching in agony years of built up video messages from his family – and Foy is great as lil’ Murph.  Yet what else is left? (more…)

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With our very dear friend John Grant (realthog) at the Princton Book Festival on Saturday

by Sam Juliano

What a fabulous surprise was in store for Lucille, Danny and I went we walked down the rows between tables at the Princeton Children’s Book Festival on Saturday.  Lucille actually noticed that our venerated comrade John Grant (realthog) was posted behind one of the tables with his lovely wife Pam, promoting his new book Eureka, which we secured a copy of.  Grant, the ever prolific writer and blogger was quite the welcome site during the one hour or so we spent there before reversing direction for the two hour right north to Chappaqua, New York -the hometown of Bill and Hillary Clinton – for another children’s book festival of annual renown.

The science-fiction countdown is down to its final quarter, and it continues to offer up one superlative essay after another in what has become a sterling display of cinematic scholarship.  Thanks to all who have supported it by way of comments and page views.  It has been quite a ride, one sadly accompanied by our unconcionable tragedy.

Lucille and I saw one film in the theaters – the western remake of The Magnificent Seven.  With the season of horror upon us I also caught several genre films at home, with one a just-released blu ray of a cheesy sci-fi-horror flick from the 50’s that worked quite well after so many years. (more…)

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by Brandie Ashe

 In the final decade of the 21st century, men and women in rocket ships landed on the moon. By 2200 AD, they had reached the other planets of our solar system. Almost at once there followed the discovery of hyperdrive, through which the speed of light was first attained and later greatly surpassed. And so, at last, mankind began the conquest and colonization of deep space.” –Prologue

Humanity loves its technology almost as much as it fears its destructive capabilities. For every development that makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, there are those advancements that bring with them the possibility of calamity, whether on a minor or somewhat more global scale. Technology is both friend and foe. It is a helpmate and a hindrance. It is born of our ingenuity and our arrogance, of our desire to help ourselves and one another, and of our greed and avarice. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, on some level, we must admit that much of our technology arises from our desire to play God, to prolong our existence, to defy the natural order of things and fly in the face of mortality.


An ancient alien race, the Krell, discovered this to their detriment some 200,000 years ago. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I don’t think it would be stretching it to say that, right from the eerie opening strains of the before-its-time electronica soundtrack, 1956’sForbidden Planet changed the face of science-fiction cinema in the 1950s. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person to ever say that. To reiterate an overused term, it truly is a groundbreaking movie, and in many ways, it set the stage for the evolution of science-fiction film over the subsequent decades. In a decade that saw any number of over-the-top treatments of the genre, Planet was something quite special: it was a straightforward, A-level sci-fi flick that took its science-fiction elements seriously, and in the process delivered a film that is both endlessly entertaining and thoughtfully multilayered. (more…)

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Time and time again I knew what I was doing and

Time and time again it just made things worse

It seems you see the most of what is really true when

You’re stepping into your hearse

Only time can write a song that’s really really real

The best a man can say is how its play on him does feel

And know he only knows as much as time to him reveals
—’Time’, Richard Hell (Destiny Street, 1982)

Time, it’s said of in the opening sequences of Alain Resnais’ 1968 sci-fi Je t’aime, je t’aime, is something that scientists can explore the past of but not the future of, and even then, only at intervals of a minute at a time. It seems a safe enough enterprise, a white lab mouse is shown to have safely made the excursion in one piece, but then, as the scientists readily point out, a mouse is unable to verbally recount the voyage, so a human is necessary to make the experimental trip. But, time is also a creator of feelings and memories, often darkly sad or painfully repressed, not merely a void with which to experiment and observe, so our hero’s journey might not be the seamless excursion we’re being sold.

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by Sam Juliano

The idea behind A.I. was originally conceived by Stanley Kubrick, who subsequently entrusted the proposed project to Steven Spielberg.  When Kubrick died suddenly in 1999, his widow successfully persuaded Spielberg to assume complete artistic control of the film, including the direction.  Set in a future time when progress in robotics poses a conceivable menace to the human species, David (Haley Joel Osment), a robotic boy, is the artificial life form who is capable of experiencing love.  As a prototype, he is given to a couple whose real son is mired in what appears to be an irreversible coma.  After a discordant initiation David and his mother bond, at which point the “real” son miraculously awakens from the coma, rejoins to the family, and tricks David into engaging in dangerous things.  The father concludes that they must return the robotic boy to the manufacturer for destruction, but the mother arranges for his escape via abandonment.  For the duration of the film David seeks to be reunited with his mother, and for a time is joined by “Gigolo Joe,” a robot designed to function as a male prostitute.  David becomes frozen I an the ocean, and millennia later–long after the extinction of the human species–robots of the future rescue him and allow him to reunite with his mother for one day that will last in his mind for eternity.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence, fueled by some profound philosophical themes and issues of motherhood, is arguably one of Spielberg’s masterworks, and for this writer it ranks with Schindler’s List, Empire of the Sun and E. T. on the short list of the director’s greatest achievements in cinema.  Like the other three, it is extraordinarily moving, and it paints yet again a piercingly provocative view of childhood and of the human condition, tinged with an overwhelming sense of sadness.  The film is based on a short story by Brian Aldiss entitled “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” published in 1969, and it draws considerable influence from Disney’s Pinocchio.   (more…)

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