So last Friday night, my wife and I had actually (a) had enough sleep the night before that we could imagine staying awake through a feature film and (b) had no obligations before 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, so we could possibly get enough sleep after a movie.
This is how old people decide whether they can go see a feature film.
Of course, this was the weekend of Batman vs. Superman, a film that is so stupidly misconceived that I cringe even saying the title. I realized that I've pretty much had it up to here with costumed "heroes." I hate the costumes. I hate the heroes.
I'm tired of pretending to believe in their magical abilities -- like Batman's superpower of not getting blown away by a shotgun blast when he shows up in full costume to do his vigilante thing.
And when a comics superhero movie is good, like the only good Superman movie, Man of Steel, I can be sure that trufans of comix will be outraged by something, and Serious Movie Critics (whose superpower is being able to completely forget why anybody who isn't paid for reviewing ever goes to the movies) will hate it.
But I also knew that at some point, I probably needed to see the movie just because I'm a sci-fi writer and the people I run into at various events will expect me to have an opinion that is actually based on something besides a generalized loathing for silliness that is taken way, way too seriously (you know, like the Trump campaign).
I dropped my wife off at the curb to go buy tickets while I parked the car. When I got to the lobby, she handed me my ticket to: London Has Fallen.
Neither of us knew much about it -- we hadn't seen Olympus Has Fallen so we didn't even know that London Has Fallen was a kind of sequel. But when she found out the B-vs.-S non-3D showing was half sold out, which would mean sitting up in the top or down at the bottom of the theater, she opted for our fallback choice.
There's a lot of shooting, exploding, and stabbing, and people use the F-word a lot. There's also a breakneck pace and a story that's more or less clear from beginning to end. The actors are all likeable, the dialogue is adequate (which, for action movies, is remarkable), and I found myself caring about the people and wanting them to win.
My wife and I both agree: This is a good movie.
And there was something I really appreciated about it: It doesn't apologize for America. In fact, it is actually kind of -- dare I say it? -- pro-American.
In an era when our current administration apologizes for being American and regards Cuba as a model of enlightened government, it was refreshing to hear a character, early in the movie, speak of Britain as our oldest and best ally.
Considering that President Zero's first act in office was to insult Britain by returning a bust of Churchill -- a man who accomplished more to benefit civilization even when he was wrong than Obama has accomplished in his entire tenure in office -- that had been given to the White House as a gift many years before.
Yeah, that's right, slap our best ally in the face by, in effect, spitting on their prime minister who led Britain in those crucial, lonely years when the fate of the world rested on their shoulders virtually alone.
But Obama speaks for the extreme left wing of American politics, which consists of the "mainstream" news media, the academic-literary elite, Hollywood liberals, and Seattle, plus all the people they have hoodwinked into thinking that their fantasy version of history is true.
That means that most Hollywood films apologize for or attack America's past.
Not London Has Fallen. It isn't political, it isn't right-wing, it simply admits that it's OK for Americans to love America and take action to defend our values and our leaders and our allies throughout the world.
Even as I listened to Morgan Freeman, as the vice-president in the movie, deliver a stirring, pro-American speech at the end, I thought: Wow, movie critics are going to hate this.
But I also knew they'd find some kind of bogus "movie" reasons to hate it instead of admitting that they don't dare approve of a movie that isn't doctrinaire Left-wing.
So yes, there are savage reviews of the movie, mostly citing things like overuse of stock footage (that's how you keep the costs down; and I, as a non-professional-reviewer, never noticed or cared) and using too much violence (especially with knives) and too many action-thriller cliches.
Oddly enough, they never object to such things in doctrinaire Left-wing movies that trash traditional values. Trust me, these hate reviews are the Pavlovian salivations of people who have forgotten how to watch a movie like a regular person.
Of course there are action-thriller cliches. Every action-thriller movie has those cliches, because they are the genre markers and if they weren't there, it wouldn't be an action-thriller movie.
Gerard Butler, whom I have never seen before, does a very good job of playing a very angry, intense, determined protector of presidents. Where some critics have blasted the film for being a "stab-a-thon," we simply have to recognize that even though guns are far deadlier than knives, knifework is way more disturbing. It makes violent action much more personal and abhorrent.
Basically, when Butler's character, Mike Banning, needs to make sure an enemy is dead, and needs to accomplish this quietly (or his gun is out of bullets), he stabs the enemy multiple times. That's why this movie almost entirely avoids the "we thought he was dead but look, he's going to shoot the hero after all" cliche -- the hero-soldier does his job.
My wife detests violent movies, and dislikes overuse of the F-word (which this movie achieves in minutes), and yet she, like me, came out of this movie energized. Maybe it's partly because of the pent-up fury of our government taking no action after the Brussels attacks except platitudes and lies (no, President Obama, saying the defeat of ISIS is our number-one priority does not cover up your complete lack of any effective action whatsoever).
Remember how, under Clinton, our response to the savage barbarian attacks in East Africa was to send cruise missiles against empty targets? Osama bin Laden correctly interpreted this as a sign of complete spinelessness on our part. The consequence was the attacks of 9/11.
Obama makes Clinton look like a hawk. The world is a more dangerous place today because we twice elected a sleepy president.
So yes, my wife and I brought geopolitics into the movie theater with us, though the movie definitely is not political. And so we felt perhaps a tad more enjoyment than the movie deserves because London Has Fallen showed government leaders acting boldly in defense of civilization.
The most brilliant moment in the film is when the U.S. President, captive and under duress, is given a chance to speak. Where Obama, not captive and not under duress, apologizes to everybody for American history, I think a lot of viewers in Greensboro are going to love what this movie president (played by Aaron Eckhart) says.
The critics hate it, except me. But the audience votes with their ticket purchases, and as of 25 March, London Has Fallen grossed more than $100 million worldwide, against a budget of $60 million.
The audience for this movie is, apparently, critic-proof.
We got to see a picture of Obama in Cuba, in front of a huge picture of Che Guevara, the 60s Left's favorite political murderer. But please, people, remember that when a head of state visits another country, he does not get to control their political iconography.
Che and Castro were pals during their revolutionary years. And however loathsome Castro's government turned out to be, Castro was a brave, smart, resourceful revolutionary, and he toppled a massively corrupt regime on a budget of little more than fifty cents and a pile of rocks.
The Cuban government knew where to place the U.S. President to get maximum propaganda mileage. Get over it. Once you decide to go to Cuba, that's going to happen; live with it. When Reagan said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," he was on the West Berlin side of it, not in Moscow, so Reagan could set the stage. Obama couldn't.
As for Obama's continuing with the baseball game instead of responding in a dramatic way to the terror attacks in Brussels, let's keep in mind how the Left delighted in showing George W. Bush on 9/11, continuing his visit with grade-school kids.
He didn't want to frighten the kids by showing "emergency," and since he wasn't Superman and couldn't fly to New York in a trice and bring the other planes down to safe, non-explosive landings, there was nothing for him to do until his advisers gathered more information. But oh, how the Left delighted in mocking him for acting responsibly.
Obama could have and should have shown bold leadership. Instead, he basically said, Wow, Europe sure has some problems, doesn't it. But so what? Why, after seven years, would anyone even imagine that Barack Obama would show honest outrage about anything that wasn't done by Republicans or policemen in the U.S.?
So Trump has further revealed his utter lack of character in the past week, by attacking Ted Cruz's wife for not being as pretty as Trump's trophy wife. But the contrasting pictures used the standard smear technique of catching Mrs. Cruz in bad lighting, with a facial expression caught in the middle of speaking, which always shapes the mouth in unattractive ways.
To be fair, Trump is invariably shown by his opponents in angry mid-diatribe photographs. To be fairer, it's hard to catch Trump not in angry diatribes. But Cruz's wife, an accomplished businesswoman in her own right, and a very attractive human being, does not deserve such visual savagery.
Meanwhile, Trump's continued effort to play from Hitler's playbook by encouraging Brown-Shirt violence from his supporters reached a new low when he predicted that if he were denied the Republican nominations, there would be riots.
Um, Mr. Trump, Republicans don't riot. And they only beat up protestors when you encourage them to violence. Are you threatening violence, sir?
Besides, if Trump doesn't win the nomination on the first ballot, that means that a majority of Republican primary and caucus voters preferred other candidates to him. Pluralities don't matter in nominating conventions. Only majorities count.
And even that is relatively recent in our history. Used to be that nominations required a two-thirds majority, which meant that every convention had multiple ballots before consensus built around one candidate.
People talk loosely about a "brokered convention," but that's just silly. The term dates from the era when political bosses absolutely controlled the delegates from their city or state, so that they could deliver their votes unanimously to whatever candidate they chose.
In that era, these power-brokers would gather and count up the votes and decide which candidate to support in order to break a logjam in the voting. Those were brokered conventions. They brought us a fair share of decent candidates. They also brought us Warren G. Harding.
However, there are no power brokers today. The delegates are free agents, after having cast the one or two ballots their state rules or laws require them to cast for the candidate who won the primary. After that, they are free to be swept along by whatever enthusiasm pleases them.
So if the Republican party has a multi-ballot convention, this is the essence of representative democracy.
Here's what's likely to happen. The front-runner in the first ballot -- presumably Trump -- will gain a few votes on the second ballot, from delegates who want to present a united party to the electorate at large. If Trump is very close to a majority, this second ballot will probably put him over the top.
But if he still hasn't won on the second ballot, then he will bleed supporters with each succeeding ballot. This doesn't mean the second-place guy will win. Remember -- there are no brokers to broker the convention. So speeches made by various people, at the convention or reported on the news, will have influence; so will private conversations among regular delegates all over the convention.
In a multi-ballot convention, anybody could end up as the nominee. No, not Mitt Romney -- he had his chance -- and probably not Paul Ryan, since he has never shown a strong desire to be president.
But all those candidates who merely "suspended" their campaigns are still available, especially if delegates pledged to them arrived at the convention and put their names in the race. Any of them could rise in the voting on later ballots.
I doubt we'll have as long a contest as the 1924 Democratic convention, when it took sixteen days and 103 ballots to nominate John W. Davis to be the Democrat who had the privilege of losing the presidential election to Republican Calvin Coolidge.
It won't even go on as long as the 36 ballots it took to nominate James A. Garfield in 1880 -- which, I must point out, was one of the best nominations in history, so multi-ballot conventions don't always lead to bad results.
Some Republicans shudder at the memory of 1976, when Ford and Reagan arrived at the Republican convention without either being clearly ahead in delegate counts. However, Ford was able to win over enough undecided votes to secure the nomination on the first ballot. Some Reaganites cried, "We wuz robbed," but nobody was robbed.
Besides, in 1976, it's likely that no Republican could have won in that first post-Watergate presidential election. And if Reagan had been the nominee and lost, then he probably would have been blamed the way that people blame Mitt Romney for losing to the incumbent Obama. So Ford's victory at the 1976 convention may be said to have saved Reagan from disastrous defeat, leading to his win in 1980 after the ayatollahs had wrecked Carter's reelection chances.
Politics is complicated. But it is perfectly legitimate for people who are horrified by Trump as a human being and Trump's "ideas" as a lasting influence on the Republican Party to rally around other candidates in order to defeat him and choose a nominee who, for instance, might have a chance of defeating Hillary Clinton.
As for the Democratic convention, remember that Hillary's commanding lead includes a count of superdelegates who have indicated that they plan to support her. But superdelegates are not bound. They have a vote at the convention because they are elected officials or party leaders, and if they see Hillary take a nosedive in the polls, and Bernie Sanders has at least 40 percent of the delegates, then half the superdelegates would be enough to put Sanders over the top.
So even though we keep hearing about how the Republican Party is dominated by "the establishment," the fact is that it's the Democratic Party convention that puts 20 percent of its votes in the hands of "the establishment." And they will vote according to who they think will win.
Democrats famously vote for indicted and convicted criminals and people who are obviously guilty of crimes, so a mere indictment won't spell doom for Hillary -- unless the American people, as polled, show that they would prefer not to elect a lying snake to the presidency. Again. (I mean, Bill was president and committed perjury while in office.)
I must admit that I would be thrilled if either or both conventions went to multiple ballots, especially if it helps us avoid the worst-case scenario -- a choice between Trump the bigoted buffoon and Hillary the bribe-taking crook.
I would really like to have somebody I could vote for this year, instead of people I'm desperate to vote against. And it may be that only a multi-ballot convention will lead us to that place.
There were some good films in 2015 that didn't get a lot of attention. Yes, Brooklyn, was nominated for an Oscar, but this gentle story of a young Irishwoman who immigrates to America, falls in love, and then returns to Ireland to find that she's torn between the two lands didn't have the pizzazz, the pyrotechnics, the hype that brought most of the other contenders more clearly to our attention.
Just before the Oscars, my wife and I were told by friends that this story was so moving that it became their choice to win. I'm afraid that I didn't like it quite that well, but I liked it a lot and maybe, when I rewatch it, I'll come to agree with my friends.
Certainly Saoirse Ronan, whom I first saw in Hanna back in 2011 (I skipped The Lovely Bones completely, and have never regretted it), is a luminous actress who disappears so completely into her parts that she's almost unrecognizable from film to film.
Right now, several underrated films from early in 2015 are appearing on cable and satellite, and it's worth pointing out that they're better than I expected.
Run All Night, starring Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, and Joel Kinnaman, sounds a lot like the Keanu Reeves revenge movie John Wick. But where Wick keeps its hero in splendid isolation, driven only by rage, Run All Night is almost the opposite movie.
The hero, played by Liam Neeson, is a retired hit man, and he doesn't live in wealth and splendor like Wick. He's lonely and sad, mostly because, having left his wife and son years before, he now has to deal with his son's angry refusal to allow him to be part of the family.
The result is a movie with plenty of action. Liam Neeson's Jimmy Conlon isn't as magical a killing machine as Keanu Reeves's John Wick, but, as with Wick, it comes down to a confrontation between Jimmy Conlon and Ed Harris's Shawn Maguire, his old friend and mafia boss.
Yet we also see Jimmy trying to overcome his son's resistance to any help from his father. He has to save his son's life more than once, but far more powerful are the moments when he stops his son from killing any of the gunmen who are trying to kill them. "If you pull that trigger, you're no better than me," says Jimmy to his son, and thus he agrees with his son's assessment of him as a very bad man.
Vincent D'Onofrio plays a detective who has been pursuing Conlon for years, but now mostly wants him to name all his victims so that the detective can close those cases and give the victim's families a solution, a face to put on the murderer of their loved ones.
In the midst of all the evil, there are some good people doing good -- mostly Joel Kinnaman's Mike Conlon. Kinnaman is so fierce-looking that we can believe him as the son of a hit man and a dangerous guy; but we can also believe him as a man who'll work in low-level jobs rather than take part in a life of crime like his father.
There's no shortage of sons in the real world who can't really feel themselves to be complete until their father dies, but in the case of Mike and Jimmy Conlon, there's good reason for both of them to feel as they do; and their eventual reconciliation is earned, bit by bit, word by word, bullet by bullet.
It's a moving film, in my opinion, which deserves your attention now, even if you missed it in the theaters.
As for the movie Max, let's face it. It's a dog movie. It's a boy-loves-dog movie. But it's not a Lassie movie and it's not Old Yeller, even though it has echoes of both.
Max is a war dog, whose handler is killed in combat in the Middle East in 2014. The dog is confused and traumatized by the death of his handler, Kyle Wincott. Max ends up with Kyle's angry younger brother, Justin (the superb Josh Wiggins), who comes to trust and then love the dog.
The movie turns much darker than I expected, though, when one of Kyle's friends, local boy Tyler Harne, gets a job at the storage facility owned by Kyle's and Justin's father, Ray (Thomas Haden Church). Tyler tells Ray that Kyle died because Max went crazy and turned on him in combat; this enrages Ray so much that he wants to kill Max.
But all is not as it appears, because Tyler is involved in some serious criminal activity with a local sheriff's deputy and some across-the-border gun merchants. Max and Justin, along with Justin's friends, find themselves in grave danger as they try to keep anybody they love -- including Max
-- from getting killed.
I expected a boy-loves-dog movie. What I saw was a boy-grows-up movie that bears more than a slight resemblance to Run All Night -- though it's the son trying to rescue the father, rather than the other way around.
I recently saw 1974's Earthquake for the first time, and wow, is it seriously bad. And by bad, I mean bad starring Charlton Heston, which elevates it to the level of spectacular badness. This is because, unlike other big stars who appeared in bad disaster movies from that era, Heston doesn't underplay his part as if he's vaguely ashamed to be in the film. No, Heston always plays his parts at full throttle, and in Earthquake the result is both poignant and laughable.
There are many plot resemblances between Earthquake and 2015's San Andreas. In both cases, there are scientists trying to predict earthquakes. The star of the movie is the husband in a marriage on the rocks, a marriage that is saved in part by the heroics involved in spending a whole movie rescuing people.
There are architects. There are dams that spring leaks and then break. One of the spouses has found someone new to love. You know, all the plot points you'd expect. Especially people getting knocked down, falling from high places, falling into new cracks in the earth, and getting swept away in flood waters.
But forget the resemblances, because, like the classic Twister, San Andreas is better than it needed to be. Even though Mario Puzo was one of the writers, Earthquake has one of the most horrible scripts ever written; San Andreas had a screenplay by Carlton Cuse -- who has also written Bates Motel, the brilliant new sci-fi series Colony, and Lost.
And here's something important: We no longer expect our heroes to be vocal about it, to act like heroes, as in the days of Charlton Heston's great roles. Instead, in our post-Clint-Eastwood world, we expect the taciturn hero, out-Garying Cooper.
For this purpose, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson turns in a far-better-than-expected performance as the rescue-helicopter pilot whose daughter is trapped at the San Francisco end of a worst-earthquake-ever while The Rock is busy saving his almost-ex-wife in Los Angeles.
It's during their frantic and dangerous trip north to rescue their daughter that The Rock and his wife, played by Carla Gugino, work out some of the problems that tore their marriage apart after the death by drowning of their other daughter years before.
The scientist-hero is played by Paul Giamatti, who does a great job of making us both understand and care about the fake science, so that we almost believe that yes, they did find a way to give at least a few minutes' warning before a big quake. And a few minutes can make a difference in the survival rate.
His foil is a reporter played by Archie Panjabi, and their subplot mostly involves trying to get a warning out in time to do any good -- without benefit of the tv station's upload link.
There is one villain, an architect played by Ioan Gruffudd, who is a long way from Horatio Hornblower and the Fantastic Four in this role.
The best plot, though, is a completely credible love story between the daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), and a young English architect, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), who happens to be in the same building with Blake, applying for a job, when the earthquake hits. Ben and his pre-teen brother, Ollie, save Blake from being trapped in a car in an underground parking garage; she then leads them through the city with disaster tips she learned from her dad.
I mean, once one of you has plucked a thick shard of broken glass from the thigh of the other, and the other has used a jack, plus tire-deflation, to extract you from a car moments before it was crushed under a falling concrete ceiling, how can you not fall in love?
But it works, largely because the actors are all so innocent and charming. Did I mention that the boy Ollie is played by the innocent and charming Art Parkinson, who also plays Rickon Stark in Game of Thrones?
I haven't seen anything else that Johnstone-Burt has done, or Daddario either (oh, wait, she was in several episodes of White Collar, so I must have seen her). But I want to see more from both of them.
Even though the most interesting storyline is that of the young lovers making their way through the ruins of a collapsing San Francisco, the fact is that The Rock is, appropriately, the anchor of this movie. He's the guy who saves people, not with a lot of gratuitous grunting and straining as he shows us how hard he's working at his rescues, but rather with a sense of urgent inevitability. This must be done, so he will do it.
Till now, I've deliberately sidestepped another reason why San Andreas is vastly better than Earthquake. Even though Earthquake had the then-new Sensurround so that audiences could feel some fake shaking, the special effects were laughable. Actors had obviously been told to jerk themselves around as if they were being shaken by a quake, but ... wow it was awful.
With computer graphics and much better stunt work, the disastrous events are much more believable and terrifying. There's a moment when Gugino watches her lunch companion go through a door on the top floor of a high rise during the quake and tries to follow after her, to get her to climb up on the roof where The Rock is going to save them.
But when she opens the door, there's nothing there. That whole side of the building has sheered away, and she watches as a man loses his hold and plummets many stories down, which must have happened to her lunch companion only moments before.
Meanwhile, I, as a confirmed sympathetic acrophobe, almost wet myself.
The Rock's and Gugino's journey northward changes methods of transportation almost as often as Around the World in 80 Days, as their damaged helicopter crashes, they steal a pickup, abandon it when a deep uncrossable fissure bars their way, then commandeer a skydiving airplane and fly it to San Francisco, then parachute out of the plane into what used to be Candlestick Park because there's nowhere to land, and finally steal a boat, which they use to ride out the tsunami and then tootle around the half-drowned city until they happen to go right past the building where Blake and Ben and Ollie are struggling to survive and ...
Yeah, that's a huge, unbelievable coincidence, but come on. If that coincidence didn't happen there wouldn't be a movie, so let's cut 'em some slack, ok?
Throughout the whole film, the special effects are very good. Cracking and bursting dams, crushed and broken bridges and overpasses, pancaking and toppling edifices, and the ground rippling as the huge tremors pass through the earth -- these all work.
Of course it's ludicrous to think that a helicopter could stay in the air after flying its rotor through a bunch of falling concrete debris -- but if we can let sci-fi spaceships dodge through asteroid storms, we can let a helicopter stay aloft after damage that should have bent those rotors like pretzels.
And when we get aerial shots of the tsunami water bursting through the streets of San Francisco, it can be a little annoying to see how they ignored the fact that the city is as hilly as a bunch of upside-down cows' udders, and very little of the water would remain in the streets except around the flattest edges of the city.
But hey, even if the water couldn't actually be where it is, they make the water believable. The tsunami is very well-done, and our heroes' ride up the front face of the wave is as good a nail-biter as you're likely to find in a disaster movie.
The movie ends with a pullaway sequence where we rise higher and higher into the air, looking down on San Francisco, which is now an island. I had to pause that sequence to see if our old house in Santa Clara was underwater. It was. I mean, not specifically, but the area where it's located was clearly not on dry land.
So when we look back on 2015's movies, I think it's OK to value and enjoy movies that nobody would ever propose for Oscars or even Golden Globes, because they aren't arty enough or don't have the right kind of stars or subject matter. Run All Night, Max, and San Andreas are at least as likely to keep finding appreciative audiences as any of the nominated and award-winning films.
In fact, even though I admire The Big Short more than any of those three films, I'm far more likely to be captivated by any of these three "lesser" films and watch it through to the end just because it happens to be on.
The Rock wasn't going to be nominated for an acting award for San Andreas, but that doesn't mean he isn't a good actor who had exactly the right chops (and the right physique) for an earthquake rescue movie.
It's ok to like movies that are entertaining, moving, exciting, or funny; it's even ok to like them better than movies that get a lot of critical praise. I don't care what happens when a CGI bear doesn't like you; but I found myself caring very much when a mafia boss or a battle-dog or the ground under their feet didn't like the characters I cared about.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com