Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Wandering Earth II

Last weekend I got to see this three-hour-long movie, subtitled in Chinese and English (with dialogue in both languages, plus French, Russian and several others but mostly Chinese). As a bonus, I also got to sit in on a Zoom Q&A session with one of the actors, Ning "Nick" Li, who lives locally (one town over) and has a lot of local supporters. Ning played a scientist named Ma Zhou in the movie; he's the guy in the space suit in the poster shown here, and apparently he was quite excited to find himself acting primarily opposite Asian film superstar Andy Lau (the guy at the very top of the poster).

Though it has the number 2 in its title, this is actually a prequel to the 2019 sci fi epic The Wandering Earth, which I'm told you can currently see on Netflix and of which I've only seen an extended review on YouTube. It tells the story about how human civilization faces (and to some extent, creates) a series of crises involving the impending death of the sun, fighting among themselves while at the same time seeking a way to survive the coming cataclysm. The path chosen by the United Earth Government is at first titled Moving Mountain, then Wandering Earth, and it basically involves using a bunch of huge engines to eject the moon from orbit around the earth, and then a bunch more to eject the earth from orbit around the sun, before setting off across interstellar space in search of a new star. A big challenge is the opposition to this plan, who would rather see people digitized and uploaded into computers where they can live forever after their death. These folks are so passionate about their plan that they won't shrink back from terrorist attacks and acts of sabotage on any scale, even at the risk of dooming the planet. And in the final, agonizing crisis, all depends on the heroism of a scientist (played by Lau) who has betrayed mankind once before.

It's an emotional whallop of a sci fi epic, and I mean epic in the full sense, covering a wide range of years, multiple facets of the project, an enormous cast of characters (the cast credits go on for screen after crowded screen), things happening on a space station, things happening on the moon, things happening on earth, things happening underwater ... It's drawn on a colossal scale, yet richly detailed. It has superb production values, gorgeous imagery, thrilling action, agonizing suspense, powerful emotions, good acting, special effects that just don't quit. It must have cost the GDP of a medium-sized country and involved enough people to populate it. It's an unbelievable spectacle even by the standards of the American film industry. I was totally entertained.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) The attack on the space elevator, an early action sequence that sets a high mark for the rest of the film. (2) The countdown to when the earth has to launch itself, each minute and second coming closer to total disaster. (3) When the soldiers over age 50 volunteer for a lunar mission they have no chance of surviving, instead of letting the young bucks sacrifice themselves – and what happens when they start to detonate their nukes on the moon's surface. It's one of the most moving depictions of large-scale courage I've ever seen, and beautifully filmed.

The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S.

The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. (as told to his brother)
by David Levithan
Recommended Ages: 10+

One night, while 11-year-old Lucas is sleeping, his 12-year-old brother Aidan disappears. A desperate search soon involves the whole community. Six days later, when the police are already starting to lose hope that the boy will be found alive, Lucas hears a thump in the attic above his bedroom, goes up to explore and finds his brother lying on the floor in front of an open wardrobe, which has already been searched multiple times. Asked where he's been, Lucas claims to have been in a fantasy world called Aveinieu, and he sticks to that story even though nobody (except maybe Lucas) believes it.

In an unflinching look at the downside of traveling to Narnia and back (or someplace like it), this book explores such issues as believing in the impossible, coming home from a life-changing experience, the stigma of mental illness, telling the truth regardless of what people want to hear, combatting cruelty with kindness, and supporting loved ones regardless of their choices and beliefs. I'll give Levithan credit for writing with a striking, beautiful style, treating his subject with compassion and stirring up a troubling blend of emotions, including a good deal of suspense – even if I object to his decision (in something of an afterthought to the main storyline) of needelessly sexualizing a 12-year-old kid.

David Levithan, a.k.a. David Van Etten, is the YA and children's author of the two "Disaster Zone" books, three "Dash and Lily" books with co-author Rachel Cohn, two "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" books (the first with co-author John Green), three or four "Every Day" books, and about 25 other novels. These include a couple "Malcolm in the Middle" titles, a "Charlie's Angels" adventure, some teen movie novelizations, and such titles as Boy Meets Boy, The Realm of Possibility, Love Is the Higher Law, The Lover's Dictionary, Two Boys Kissing, Answers in the Pages and Ryan and Avery. A lot of them seem to share the general theme of queer teens. Although it isn't crucial to the plot of this book, that theme is represented in a small but significant way – which may be a concern for devoutly Christian parents and teachers choosing reading material for their kids.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Double Feature

Our local movie theater is currently screening double features of classic movies, a different pairing every week. It's a fundraiser to replace the computer that decrypts first-run Hollywood movies for that screen's projector. This past weekend, the show was "Singin' in the Rain" at 5:30 and "La La Land" at 7:15. A small group attended each movie. Apparently, I was the only person who bought in for the whole double feature, that night.

I've seen "Singin' in the Rain" before, several times, but always on home video and usually with my parents. It really is a fun movie with some gorgeous song-and-dance numbers. I kept getting choked up. First, because Debbie Reynolds looks so young and fresh in it, and I couldn't help recalling that she passed away around the same time as her daughter, Carrie Fisher. And I gather that heartbreak had something to do with it. Then there's the song "Good Morning," which my dad and stepmom used to sing (now and then) to get me out of bed when I was a kid. And Gene Kelly's famous splashing-through-puddles performance of the title song. And various other things that hit me in the feels for nostalgic reasons. I shed a few tears.

I also got a kick out of laying on my fellow audience members, as they got up to leave, the obscure factoid that the plot of the movie – in which a glamorous silent-film actress at the height of her career suddenly has to make a talkie and, due to her grating, nasal voice, ends up having another actress off-camera speak her lines into a microphone while she lip syncs. That, fyi, is what happened when Alfred Hitchcock made "Blackmail," initially a silent movie that turned on a dime and became Britain's first talkie, despite starlet Annie Ondra having a thick Polish accent. Without the romantic hijinks or off-camera backstabbing depicted in "Singin'," the solution was generally what the later musical comedy depicts, with one actress at the end of her career mouthing the words and another actress easing into stardom from off-camera.

As for "La La Land," a musical love story featuring a struggling actress and a frustrated jazz pianist in recent-day Hollywood, I had no previous emotional investment in the film because, you know, it was my first time seeing it. I mostly knew about it, before this past weekend, due to its involvement in a Best Picture envelope snafu at the Academy Awards. It might have deserved to be a Best Picture winner. It was a gorgeously made movie and it also got me in the feels.

But it certainly didn't have the overall joyful vibe that "Singin' in the Rain" exudes. There's a lot of disappointment, discouragement, and down-and-outness in it. The romantic couple's first three encounters are not what you'd normally call the makings of a great love story (though there does seem to be a certain unacknowledged spark between them in the song-and-dance piece "A Lovely Night" (as in "What a waste of a lovely night").

The movie has more wonderful songs in it, like "The Fools Who Dream" and "City of Stars," and of course one mustn't forget the opening ensemble number "Another Day of Sun." The music is mainly by Justin Hurwitz with one written and sung by John Legend. One clever thing about the movie is how a story that feels heart-honest is sold through a series of songs that all serve the purpose, unlike some of the numbers in "Singin'," which seem to have been shoehorned in without regard for relevance to the storyline. Another clever thing is how Ryan Gosling actually looks like he's playing great jazz on the piano. Can he really do that?

Then there were some impressive dream sequences, like dancing in the stars at the planetarium and the girl's vision of what her life with the boy might have been if they had stayed together, etc. The visual and musical whimsies fill the eyes and the heart. Damien Chazelle (director) and Emma Stone (lead actress) earned their Oscars for sure, and though the movie was rather cruelly denied the top prize after all, it's still a great achievement and a hopeful sign that the movie musical ain't dead yet.