Scientists vs. “Pacific Rim”

I reckon it’s one of those evenings again when instead of doing something that I had already planned in advance (in this particular case it was a plan to review a film) I will be forced to address an issue that has been brewing in the back of my brain for a while.

It has come to my attention that a film that I thoroughly enjoyed (“Pacific Rim”) weirdly enough has sparked a discussion about the erroneous and allegedly denigrating portrayal of science and its practitioners. Therefore, I feel compelled to voice my own opinion on the subject, as I have not only enjoyed the film and have not been bothered by its take on science, but – as a scientist myself – I think I am reasonably qualified to do so anyway being a member of the community that has supposedly been affected by “Pacific Rim’s” ignorant, superficial and (help me, thesaurus, you’re my only hope) defamatory depiction of the world’s intellectual elite.

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In the last week’s episode of Slashfilmcast, as a sort of impromptu debate in between film reviews, the problem of “Pacific Rim” and its goofy scientists has been raised, wherein it was argued that the scientist characters portrayed by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman have nothing to do with how a real scientist looks like and that the film-makers have completely over-stepped the line between a comedic caricature and a slanderous mockery. The comment by a real-life professional particle physicist from Penn University, Sean, who must have left the screening deeply offended by how Guillermo Del Toro and Travis Beacham have shown his profession in an allegedly negative light, has only cemented my resolve to partake in the discussion.

Let me ask you this: why do we seem to be having a problem in the first place? For all I know, “Pacific Rim” is not the first and will most certainly not be the last film that is punctuated by raging inaccuracies in its portrayal of science and the mechanistic aspects of reality (i.e. how come a kaiju can be a silicon-based life-form, but still have DNA), but for some reason the general consensus is to single it out as dumb, unrealistic, and offensive in its ignorance. A quick Google search will actually show you, how determined some people have gotten in their attempt to call the creators of “Pacific Rim” on their bullshit. I completely understand the idea of applying real science to point out where exactly a given film is inaccurate; hell, I used to do that myself years ago. It’s just one of those things that nerdy young apprentices of science do in their down time and I was no different. I’m sure I’m not the only one in here, who used to have very heated debates with friends about the intricacies of warp drive, wormholes, mechanics of giant robots, or whether in real life a character would survive the ordeal, from which he seemed to have escaped unscathed on screen.

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But would anybody do the same for a fantasy film? Would anybody question the mechanics of conjuring a fireball by a wizard in his battle against a hell-spawn demon? Of course not, simply because we inadvertently assume that we are dealing there with a different universe that might or might not have completely different and obscure mechanics. Nobody questions, why the seasons in “Game of Thrones” last for generations, because it is the very premise on which this entire world is built. So, why can’t we do the same for giant robots and monsters?

Where exactly is the difference then? After all, “Pacific Rim” creates a universe (tangential to our own; I can’t see any kaiju roaming the Pacific coasts, can you?) where an alien race uses an inter-dimensional gateway to dispatch big-ass monsters to fight the inhabitants of Earth. At this point, I am not allowed to question anything about the so-called realism of the universe, because the fact giant monsters can emerge from a different dimension to fight gigantic robots is the very convention used in this film. It’s commonly referred to as poetic license and pretty much assumes that it is well within the author’s powers to create a world as he sees fit and we shouldn’t apply any laws of our nature to explain the events depicted in the story set in the aforementioned universe. Well, we still do it for the fun of calculating things (non-nerds will never understand it though), but I find it unjust to judge the quality of the film based on the mechanics of the universe it shows and its apparent lack of realism. Somehow, I can’t remember anyone being that snipy about “The Avengers”, “Man of Steel”, or “Iron Man”. I guess, nobody is bothered by giant ships floating in the lower stratosphere, men flying at supersonic speeds and/or dressing in suits of armour that can do anything short of cooking a dinner for five. Again, where is that line “Pacific Rim” has crossed?

If you’re somehow capable of grasping the notion of “Pacific Rim” having nothing to do with reality, then most of the initially contentious areas of this film will become irrelevant (maybe excluding the wind-resistant umbrellas), so that we can focus at the problem actually raised by Sean the Physicist. Well, he thinks it is berating to depict scientists (regardless of their field) as loud, goofy, inconsiderate or reckless. He goes a step further though claiming it is damaging to the scientific society, when the general public is shown that kind of stereotypical-bordering-on-racist portrayal of a scientist that fails to show their real motivations, their real desires and dreams, and what real scientists actually do for a living. Because that’s how Hollywood films usually show scientists – as mad, sinister, socially awkward people that use long words, wear white lab coats and dream of world domination. But don’t they do the same with policemen? Aren’t they typically obese, donut-eating, rule-disregarding trigger-happy, alcoholic macho cowboys addicted to adrenaline? …Or politicians? …Or journalists? Seriously, pick a profession and you will find that Hollywood does a near perfect job at creating its stereotypical and potentially damaging image in high-profile blockbusters. So why would the scientists be exempt exactly?

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Does every police drama have to pay due homage to the trials and tribulations of the law enforcement officers? Conversely, does every Sci-Fi film have to be scientifically accurate and/or truthful in its depiction of science? Hell, No! Do you want to know why? Because it’d be boring – that’s why!

I know that we – scientists – tend to have some form of a god complex which makes us feel unique and special, so that we can create our little bubbles in which we’d dwell completely divorced from the mundane problems of the real world. Therefore, we are led to believe that whatever it is we do, it is magnificent and ground-breaking and if we can get just that one grant, or that one paper out, then we could change the world and we would be remembered for eons…

But, let’s be honest for a second. What are the real motivations that drive a scientist to spend days and nights in the lab, to stare at white boards full of equations, to run countless simulations, or to never stop thinking about work? Is it the inherent desire to understand the world? Or maybe the selfless need to help others? As much as I’d like to think so, the truth lies far from it. In the grand scheme of things, as with any other profession, I might add, the main goals of any practicing scientist are fame, power, and money. I really don’t want to delve deeper into the rotten nature of the scientific community, but modern science – for the most part – has nothing to do with selfless sacrifice for the greater good. A scientist these days doesn’t pursue the problems he finds interesting, but rather the ones that would yield publications. Research than cannot be published is simply not worth the hassle. Moreover, the scientist strives to publish his findings only in the most prestigious of journals, so that he can secure the grants for his future endeavours and so that he could feel better among his peers.

Exactly – peers! But, have you ever tried to explain your research to a civilian? How many practitioners of science are capable of addressing the general public, so that the crowd understands the importance of their work? And worse yet: how many scientists actually do that? Try and ask members of public to name 5 physicists, astronomers, chemists, or biologists and you’ll see how lacking the perception of science in the real world is. A simple question of who won the Nobel Prize in any of the scientific disciplines would reveal how little people actually know, and it’s not their fault, honestly speaking; it’s the hermetic shut-off nature of the scientific community filled with elitist individuals who despise teaching that’s responsible.

So, yes! I’d like my film scientists to be divorced from reality sometimes. I’ll gladly take the goofy guys from “Pacific Rim” or the socially awkward bunch from “The Big Bang Theory” any day of the week. It’s not that I don’t enjoy seeing faithful portrayal of any profession, but there is time and place for everything and at times a little bit of comic relief (be it caricature or not) is much welcome. If you’re worried that the youngsters will take that kind of depiction seriously and it would steer them away from pursuing science as a career – well then, they wouldn’t make good scientists anyway, if they’re that easily discouraged. I know some of you might feel they are getting the shorter end of the stick when the cops, pilots, soldiers and any other gun-wielding profession gets all the appraisal and flag waving. But a true scientist should be immune to applause and continue on his journey to the truth in spite of it all, so if you’re offended by wacky scientists in blockbusters, maybe you’re not a scientist after all, but more of an attention-seeking lab-rat suffering from abandonment issues that thought becoming a researcher was a great career move.

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In closing, I’d like to bring one more thing to attention. While it’s perfectly reasonable to discard the scientific validity of anything that Hollywood tent-pole releases try to pass as science, I find it baffling that there are individuals out there claiming to have been offended by the idea of Charlie Day’s character sticking an electrode into a hunk of alien meat and attaching it to his own brain. I am really struggling to understand the problem. Could it be that a ‘real scientist’ would never ever ever ever ever do anything like that, because it’s a reckless, potentially harmful behaviour and nobody can possibly fathom what repercussions it might bring?

Well, have I got news for you… Self-experimentation has been and most likely will remain indispensable as a tool of scientific progress. It embodies the pinnacle of human curiosity – which by the way the scientists should carry forward for the future generations – without which many discoveries and ground-breaking observations would have happened much much later. Simply because the breed of scientists has a long history of researchers tasting their synthesized chemicals, or injecting themselves with home-made vaccines, or various bacteria, I do not have a problem with seeing that on the screen.

After all is said and done, in this day and age when we are advised not to endanger ourselves in the name of curiosity, I think every scientist out there should share the sentiment that we think it’s really (!!!) cool to be able to do something like that; just to feel how it’s like for a moment. Because that’s what science is all about and I’d very much like the young people to understand it, however comedic it comes across, there’s nothing wrong in showing a guy willingly establishing a wired connection with a hunk of meat. It’s all about learning the truth and heeding the cry of our inner curious child that makes us boldly go where no man has gone before. And if any particle physicist ends up offended by that, then he must have a huge chip on his shoulder, and maybe – just maybe – he’s not a real scientist at all. Science is not a job that you do and it has nothing to do with scoring a position at an Ivy League institution. Being a scientist is a state of mind; it’s the desire to do what nobody else would think of doing. So, to the best of my knowledge, even the wacky scientists in “The Independence Day” or “Pacific Rim” end up rather faithful in that regard, everything else aside.

Rant Over.

 

The Blind Spot Special – The Spike List

For some time now I have been toying with various ideas about getting in touch with the classics of cinema, but unfortunately I couldn’t decide on the form or the content of something like that. Quite frankly, simply going through (or even worse – binging through) the most iconic pieces of film-making I find daunting to say the least and I’d rather prefer to sprinkle some fun into equation by making it a game or a challenge. To certain extent I hoped that “The Blind Spot” reviews would be fit for purpose, but I failed to incorporate the fun factor into it, so in the end, “The Blind Spot” I have decided to keep for more personally relevant stuff.

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Other than that, I still have some ideas to re-invigorate me desire to get acquainted with things I really should have seen by now (like most of Woody Allen’s stuff and nearly all of Hitchcock’s work), but due to my own personal time constraints I think I’ll have to hold back on that though for a little while.

Meanwhile, Spike Lee in an attempt to utilize his high profile now (especially with the anticipated “Oldboy” remake to hit the screen soon-ish) has decided to share some of his film knowledge with the rest of us. In case if you don’t know, Spike Lee is also a teacher at NYU Film School where he mentors countless young aspiring film-makers and, as he put it, every year before he starts off with a fresh batch of young minds, Spike gives every student a list of films he believes a film-maker should see. And now he shared the list with us as well. Now, I’m no film-maker nor I intend to become one, but I thought I’d have a look to see how Spike Lee wants me to see the world of cinema.

And I have to admit, I’m a little embarrassed… Out of 86 films Spike named as absolutely vital for any film-maker to see, I can only say I’ve seen 12. You can have a look at the list here, but suffice it to say that my knowledge of iconic classics lacks severely. Plus, out of those 12 I know, I can only remember 4 of them, that’s how long it’s been since I saw them. Even though I’m not planning on making any films in the foreseeable future, I believe I should make haste and get cracking on them classics. I think it’s always fun to come up with little projects that give you some more things to do in your spare time, so I accept the challenge, Mr Lee. You have uncovered a major blind spot in my knowledge of film and it shall be addressed. Additionally, it’s yet another thing to be writing about.

Excelsior!

One more thing: I wonder if Spike Lee’s list would inspire his fellow acclaimed directors and writers to come up with lists of their own. I’d definitely love to have a look at what Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, David Fincher, or Danny Boyle would like me to see.

Shortcake #19 – “One Last Dive” and “2AM”

It’s not my usual m.o. to blog when I’m at work, but since I have a short space of time to spare and nobody’s looking I decided to give it a bash and put something together. Right, so it happens that I managed to start off my day in a pleasurably disturbing way by having these two short films accompany me while I was finishing my coffee.

“One Last Dive” is a minute-long single-take film directed by Jason Eisener (“Hobo with a shotgun”), so I can’t really say that it’s an amateur job. There’s not much to say about something that lasts only 69 seconds; it was shot for a “3:07 AM Project” (conceived as a part of the viral campaign for “The Conjuring”) that actually imparts the format of the film (1 minute, 1 take) and the genre. I’ll definitely sit down and watch the remaining three shorts (that you can watch here), and I can already tell by “One last dive” that at least Eisener knows what he’s doing. The film is creepy and disturbing, even though there’s not much of a story there, but in being absolutely terrifying, it’s done the job pretty well, I must say. And the fact everything takes place under water with limited visibility only serves to amplify the claustrophobic sense of threat.

“2AM” is a freshly released short produced by Go For Broke Pictures that has managed to make a bit of a splash on Youtube by raking in a million views in under 72 hours. Directed by Michael Evans, the film is an adaptation of an allegedly true story found on Reddit and while by the end it might have strayed away from it, it still remains pretty disturbing. I should only hope that it was all made up and none of that was actually true, because I would not like to find myself in a situation like his. And if I did, I would probably never be able to sleep again. Nicely done, shot with a pro angle making nice use of the depth of field to capitalize on the fear, “2AM” makes for 4 minutes of decent horror. And if you buy into the story’s origins – well, then you’re in for a ride.

Why a “Warcraft” film is a disaster waiting to happen…

Whenever something big happens that somehow pertains to the greater world of film, I can usually tell by the volume and content of my Feedly updates. And it just so happens that it’s that time of year when Comic Con rolls around and it is usually accompanied by a whole variety of unveilings, teasers, announcements that would make a nerd squeal with excitement. But it’s not the news about the upcoming Batman/Superman crossover (which has been disguised as “Man of Steel 2”), the details about “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”, some allegedly sexy bits about “The Avengers 2”, nor any sequel/remake/reboot-related nonsense that caught my keen geeky glasses-clad eyes.

At this point I believe it is yesterday’s news, but in the interest of completeness I shall say that Legendary Pictures together with Warner Bros. during their panel have shown a short teaser of their upcoming “Warcraft” project, followed by a short chat with Duncan Jones – the film’s director. Well, the sad part is that if you haven’t been there in person, you will never see the teaser, but you can read various descriptions on blogs and news outlets, the most detailed of which was put together by the good folks at Screen Rant. “Warcraft” is slated for the already way too bloated summer of 2015 and is due to be shot next year. Up until now, the persistent lack of news about its development has found me troubling over the future of this film. Besides the scarce news tidbits about Sam Raimi leaving the project to make place for Duncan Jones and some script-related problems, there’s been nothing in the public domain that would shed any light on the development of “Warcraft”.

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As an avid fan of Blizzard Entertainment’s input into modern gaming culture I have to admit I am torn about all this. I have nothing but respect and love towards the fantastic World of Warcraft (and every now and again I have this recurring urge to re-subscribe and see how my paladin is doing), but there’s a number of reasons I don’t think adapting the rich, vibrant and immersive World of Warcraft for the big screen is ever going to work.

First and foremost, the whole idea is at least five years too late. Warcraft (the Real-Time Strategy from the way, way back) is no longer a mainstream e-sport and WoW is now nearly 10 years old. It’s still the biggest online gaming experience of any kind in the history of anything ever and there will likely never be another MMO behemoth of that magnitude, but now is definitely not the time to go and release a film. Now, anybody even remotely aware of how Blizzard Entertainment handles developing new products (be it new IP, or expansions and additions to their existing franchises) knows that these guys operate at glacial speed. While it is more than appropriate when it comes to polishing a brand new game – and anybody who spent a decade waiting for Starcraft or Diablo sequels will know exactly what I have in mind – the film world operates at much greater speed; so postponing a project ad infinitum, just so that the script is right and the night elves have the right belt buckles and what-not will most definitely harm the entirety of the project.

As it stands, the long overdue “Warcraft” project has been in early development for quite some time (7 years, to be exact) now, but in meantime the source material has been getting progressively older and more complex. Note, I have not used the word ‘stale’ because the good guys at Blizzard are bending over backwards on a day-to-day basis in order to expand the vast lore and provide their customers with the highest quality experience as humanly possible. But just like every single thing in life, even World of Warcraft has an expiration date and at this particular juncture we are more likely to be getting closer to seeing it. The player base is (and has been for a little while) slowly declining and eventually the World of Warcraft will die. It’s still far down the road, but starting a film franchise set in this world is by far the worst possible idea to rake in new subscribers; it has more to do with the particular nature of the Warcraft world and the way a new player is introduced to it, but nevertheless, a film will never jumpstart a revolutionary influx of fresh blood into the WoW servers. If anything, it might force a few raised eyebrows and questions of ‘is WoW still a thing?’ variety…

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As I said, the film should have been made 5 years ago to capitalize on the game’s humongous popularity, but the longer they’ve waited, the more hermetic the community has become and now that it’s been a long time since it peaked, the odds of the film actually making a big splash are slim to none. I think it goes without saying that a high-profile fantasy picture that needs to be large in scale will require a formidable budget. It worries me that “Warcraft” at the time of release (surrounded by a tidal wave of remakes and sequels also slated for that summer) will find it difficult to woo the movie-goers into buying a ticket. Looking at how non-sequels are doing nowadays in terms of box-office performance I can only anticipate “Warcraft” to become that summer’s biggest bomb. With a budget well into nine figures, this project will struggle to offer anything of substance to an unfamiliar viewer. Maybe if everyone in the world who at some point in their life had anything to do with Warcraft went and bought a ticket, the film would maybe make enough to be profitable, but I find it highly unlikely.

Besides all that, what is “Warcraft” going to be about anyway? Speaking from a position of someone who enjoys the Warcraft lore and has read most of the books and related extended universe, I can tell you that much – it’s in no way easy to come up with a story that would be appropriate for the screen at this point. If it were 5 or 6 years ago, that’s completely different, but now I can’t really see how it could unfold.

Usually, a well-established universe will have one or two story arcs that it’s built upon that can be easily adapted for the screen. Take Tolkien’s world for instance: it’s quite obvious that stories like “The lord of the rings” or “Hobbit” are no-brainers when it comes to film-making. No-one in their right mind would take an obscure tale from “Silmarillion” and try to have the viewer enter this world through a back door. Well, with the Warcraft world it’s not that easy, because you can’t really point your finger at a single story that could carry the load and catapult the entire world onto the screen; and if there are stories that definitely deserve that title, there are far too many of them. Cramming them all into one feature (or a trilogy, which is the trend nowadays) I perceive as very risky, because the time-limited nature of the big screen would force the crucial features of the universe to be brushed over, and many arcs omitted or neglected. Plus, in case of a planned trilogy, everything would hinge upon the success of the first one, which is not that likely taking into account the competition in the box office.

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I think that when it comes to finding a suitable story to tell, that would introduce the newcomers to the universe and at the same time satisfy the massive fan-base (which I would hope to be bigger than just the active subscribers), the task is nigh impossible. The bipolar nature of the world and its lore (and the community which is known for its whining, moaning, groaning and table-flipping) with the inhabitants of Azeroth divided into two factions (Alliance and Horde, for the lay men) I believe that whatever the choice, some large group of people will end up disappointed, neglected, and/or offended.

If, hypothetically, “Warcraft” adapted an already existing arc from the lore, it’s more than likely that the story would have an angle that puts one of the factions in a negative light. While it’s perfectly acceptable for most of the established franchises (the Sith rarely get any love, and Sauron probably never had a fan-club) where the stories in general pit the good against the forces of evil, it most certainly does not apply here at all. The world in the Warcraft universe is painted in all shades of grey and one can just as easily cherry-pick story arcs that would glorify the Alliance over the Horde, as well as the other way round. So, any of the most epic arcs in the lore (be it the story of Medivh, the fall of Arthas, Thrall’s reunification of the Horde, or the first re-emergence of Deathwing) can be told through various viewpoints that are equally as valid.

It can all be circumvented by referring to the extended lore that pre-dates anything Warcraft players can feel strongly about, but then again – it would be equivalent to adapting “Silmarillion”. Anything that is removed from the main stream of Warcraft lore is in my opinion too obscure to suit anybody who is not versed in the subject. Simply put, only the nerds would cheer – nobody else.

Artwork depicts characters from the hit online game "World of Warcraft."

Finally, the film adaptation can either re-tell any of the current lore developments that WoW subscribers have lived through in raids, dungeons, daily quests or global events, or introduce something completely new that would support what is to come in future expansions to the game. Either way, it’s a risky position to put oneself in, because the Warcraft community is well-known for its zealous criticism of any new developments prior and during release. Plus, the existing world of Warcraft is already bloated with arcs, races and side factions that are comedic in nature and their sole purpose is to provide relief from any serious business that carries on in the background of lore, but are still integral parts to the world and omitting them would not be well received. So, it might be rather difficult to try and cater to as many people as possible, while portraying the world in a serious and fair manner and trying to stay epic in scale. Because, how else to bring a world that huge and colorful to life, if not in the grandest of ways…

So this is why I fear that “Warcraft” will fail to live up to the expectations, while the expected audiences would flood the cinemas to see the next “Avengers” or “Star Wars”. The community that has been waiting for this film for way too long cannot be satisfied at this point in time due to the size and complexity of the world, as well as the difficulties in unbiased portrayal of the major story arcs. Let’s face it – it’s just too late now.

Having said all that, I’ll still go and see “Warcraft” when it hits the screens (and will choose it over any other blockbuster, for that matter) and if none of my predictions actually come true, I’ll gladly eat my own words. Quite frankly, I’m quietly counting on it, because I’d like everybody else to see how awesome it is to be part of this world.

“The frozen ground” – it’s always the quiet ones

There’s a whole variety of reasons, why I didn’t feel all that confident while going to see “The frozen ground”. For anyone who has some rudimentary knowledge of modern cinema, knowing Nicolas Cage stars in this film can mean only one of two things: the film is either going to suck massively, or it’s going to be really good. Usually, there’s no middle ground to what we get in terms of quality from anything with Cage’s name on it. Quite fortunately, however, we can kind of deduce, whether a given film is going to be a let-down or not. In some circles over at the deeper end of the Internet it is believed that the quality of Nicolas Cage’s film is inversely proportional to the length of his hair: the shorter it is, the better the film. Understandably, like most things that you can find in the far reaches of cyberspace, it’s only partially true and exceptions to the rule are quite abundant. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that in “Leaving Las Vegas”, “Adaptation”, or “Lord of War” his hair was short and neat, while in duds like “Con Air”, “Next”, or “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, Nick’s mane could be spotted from a mile away.

Going only by this rule, I’d say that “The frozen ground” should be a safe bet, but – then again – there are other things that could possibly go wrong about this film, but before addressing them, I think I should say a few words about what “The frozen ground” is all about.

It’s a true story about Robert Hansen – a mass murderer who terrorized Alaska for over a decade by kidnapping, raping, torturing and murdering young women. Well, ‘terrorized’ is a bit of a stretch here, because only after Hansen had dispatched over 20 souls, did the police start connecting the dots and realized they had a serial killer on their hands. This is what “The frozen ground” is about – it’s an epilogue to Hansen’s decades-long reign of violence. And, as you’d expect, it almost always starts up with a slip-up.

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The film starts off with a police intervention in a hotel room, where a girl is found bound and bruised. Cindy (Vanessa Hudgens) – a prostitute – claims she has been held hostage, brutally raped and threatened by a man who is quickly identified as Robert Hansen (John Cusack) – a stellar citizen, entrepreneur and a family man. She claims to have escaped him just about as he allegedly intended to murder her, but other than her testimony, there’s nothing more than circumstantial evidence that would point to Hansen as her tormentor. Cindy’s case lands on the desk of Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), who is just about on his way out of the police department. It quickly turns out that the case is no mere brush-over as more bodies are (accidentally) uncovered and the dots are being connected. The only thing missing is the link between all those and Robert Hansen. In order to solve this puzzle, Halcombe dives into the Anchorage underworld and sets off to prove that Hansen is indeed nothing more than a predator in disguise.

Serial killers undoubtedly make very interesting subjects for the purposes of cinema. The phenomenon of monsters that hide in plain sight and prey on us to satiate their twisted urges has spawned more films than one can possible imagine: from slashers to shocking thrillers, as a society we adopted the fact the world is full of violent predators and turned them into entertainment. Thus, we allowed the film-makers to let their imaginations run rampant to bring to life the most iconic villains now ingrained into popular culture.

Now, I think that generally we can divide the films that take on the subject of mass murderers into at least two main categories: films founded in reality and films that are completely abstract. The latter bag can be quickly filled with all the horrors and shockers we can possibly name along with many more. The former category, however, is far more interesting. In it we’ll find the true crime thrillers and dramas (where “The frozen ground” undoubtedly belongs) together with films like “The silence of the lambs”, “The girl with the dragon tattoo”, or “Se7en” that may not be directly based on real events, but are either inspired by them, or convey the twisted sense of realism that sets them apart from anything else.

Going back to what could possibly go wrong with “The frozen ground”… I think it’s fair to say that the true crime subgenre can (and often does) suffer from a major flaw – lack of suspense. More often than not, we know from the get-go who the killer is and the entire aspect of the hunt, the investigation and finger-pointing loses its impact. In order to alleviate that, one would expect the film either to take a creative angle at the story, showcase some really interesting characters, or simply concentrate on the reality of the horror that some real people had to go through.

 

Sadly, “The frozen ground” doesn’t do any of those things to an extent that would elevate it from the crowd of conveyor-belt police dramas. The characters are a bit one-dimensional and none of them really jumps out of the page. Maybe, and it’s a stretch, Cusack’s portrayal of Robert Hansen borders on a really good performance, but it’s nowhere near Kevin Spacey’s John Doe, or Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. Hansen in “The frozen ground” lacks color a bit and it’s not exactly obvious that he is indeed a twisted psychopath. Vanessa Hudgens and Nicholas Cage don’t make a lot of effort either and, as a result, the build-up to a climactic ending is virtually nonexistent. When you already expect a certain kind of conclusion to a story and you don’t really spend a whole lot of time thinking ‘who the killer is’, the major drive for suspenseful pacing is a character (or a group of characters) that you should care about. Either we hope for the killer to get what he deserves, or we hope for the valiant police officer to connect the dots quicker than it takes for the next victim to be murdered. Either way, “The frozen ground” doesn’t really achieve that and the whole story feels very grey, sad and uneventful. Ironically, the same three adjectives could be used to describe, how Alaska was depicted in his film as well.

Now that I think about it, the reason “The frozen ground” looks terribly dull and boring is that we are used to something completely different. You see, real life is not quite filled with surprising twists, violent explosions and what-not. On the contrary, I dare say that a real-life investigation of a potential serial killer case is far from what Hollywood has made us think it is. There are no pissing contests, no rule-disregarding rookie cops, no shootouts, and no stupid endangerment of human life. Instead, there are procedures, interviews, begging for warrants at the DA’s office, sifting through files… You know – police work. And if I apply that filter to how I perceive “The frozen ground”, it turns out it’s not that bad at all.

I think this film simply reflects how that kind of investigation really looks like. So, if you’re looking for high-octane thrilling manhunt with blood, violence, gun-shots and everything – looks somewhere else. But if you want to have a look at how serial killers possibly look like and what it takes to bring them down, then “The frozen ground” might just be what you need.

Perhaps not all serial killers have sophisticated and brutal rituals… Maybe their slip-ups are not so spectacular, and maybe the detectives work day and night to find something that would help them catch the monster not by running around with guns, but by methodical research of the gathered evidence. Finally, the characters might have been that one-dimensional for a reason, just because that’s what these people could have been like – regular… A regular prostitute with regular issues… A regular detective running a regular investigation into a regular guy who murders people… I know it’s scary, but I think that’s more or less, how real life looks like; it’s nothing special.

 

Shortcake #18 – “Conscription”

Whenever we think of war and its repercussions, we almost invariably have in mind an entire string of cliché pictures from the dying soldiers, through holocaust victims, refugees, to pretty much who looks like he has lost someone in the midst of some kind of military conflict. It is not my intention here to somehow depreciate the importance and the powerful message of said pictures that we immediately associate with the horrors of war, but there are things we rarely think or speak of, that also fall into such category.

“Conscription” by Jack Bottomley is just that – a powerful example of how war breaks human spirit. It’s a single-take story (a criterion to enter One Shot Movie Competition, where it clawed its way to the final screening) about a man whose life is terribly disturbed by the war. So, accompanied by a radio speech of Winston Churchill’s (which is pretty ironic given how the story unfolds in the end, against how Churchill’s speeches are widely considered the pinnacle of uplifting patriotism) the man struggles with the most difficult decision of his life.

It’s simply stunning how much one can stuff into a single camera shot that lasts about 2 minutes. I mean, I’ve seen things before that tried to look smart by shoving all kinds of nonsense into the frame, but “Conscription” by way of minimalism in shooting with attention to detail gives the story a sense of depth without steering towards pretentious moralizing. I think Jack Bottomley has accomplished something here, because he invariably forced me to think what I would do if I were in such a position myself. Where does my patriotism end and where does it begin? How do my personal beliefs and moral code fare against what my country could expect from me? And do I even care enough about it all…

I reckon that most of the so-called difficult decisions we face during our lifetimes are on a completely different level to what is posed in here by “Conscription”. At no point in life do we want to choose how our lives would end… And at any given point in time, chances are that somewhere in the world someone might be faced with a dilemma of just that nature – and it scared the living hell out of me more than any other horrors of war. After all, the mass-media and Hollywood have made me somehow immune to the bulk of the violence that is associated with military conflicts, but this amazing, creepy and ultimately disturbing short film broken through this thick shell of indifference that had encapsulated that little part of my brain that is responsible for empathy. Well done, Sir!

Minireview: “Stand Up Guys”

Who would have thought that bagging a couple iconic names to star in a gangster movie alongside one another is not going to work…? It turns out the only reason an abomination like “Stand Up Guys” is allowed to exist, is to prove just that. Under sloppy direction by pretty much a random dude (Fisher Stevens), the film brings together for the first time in history a highly respected trio of fantastic actors: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin (who doesn’t get much of a role), plus Mark Margolis as the villain who supplements the geriatric trio, and you would think that the film should be good. Well, it’s not. It’s just the opposite, to be exact.

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“Stand Up Guys” is a story about Val (Pacino) whom we meet when he’s leaving prison and is greeted by his old friend Doc (Walken), who offers Val shelter and everything he needs to readjust to normality after nearly three decades behind bars. What Val doesn’t know, is that Doc’s intentions are not exactly clear, as he is being blackmailed by their former (mob) boss Claphands (Margolis) and forced to murder Val in revenge for killing Claphands’ son 30 years ago.

Honestly, there’s nothing that could save “Stand Up Guys” here. The film is awful through and through. The story is ridiculous and apart from being just generally implausible, the way the plot proceeds from A to B to C lacks logic in a way that makes “Iron Man 3” look intellectual. The story doesn’t flow naturally, as a result, which makes every turn look forced. Moreover, Doc’s moral dilemma – supposed tent-pole to the whole story – plays out artificially and the whole thing feels like there was nothing at stake at all. Having the story be stuffed with banalities and clichés all throughout doesn’t help either, and any doubt as to how the story would unfold and where it’s going is swept away very quickly.

 

And the acting… I thought I’d never say anything of the sort about a film starring Pacino and Walken, but their performances were horrid, forced, blundering, sloppy, bogus and downright crap. Does the age turn a film icon into a caricature? Or is it the abhorrent direction by a random schmuck that’s responsible for what I have just witnessed? Either way, Pacino and Walken don’t even break a sweat with their acting, which is confined to them doing impressions of themselves. And not even good ones – I think I can find people on Youtube that do a better ‘Christopher Walken’ than Walken himself. They all just walk around, read lines with no emotion, thought, or melody, but it does fit rather well into the story that lacks exactly the same qualities.

In summary, “Stand Up Guys” is just 90 minute-long story (or rather an incoherent, illogical, and annoying collection of scenes) about grumpy old men talking nonsense to one another, shooting guns and pretending to act. Shame! At least it wasn’t too long…