Ray Bradbury Award Nominees 2015

written by David Steffen

The Ray Bradbury Award is not a Nebula, but nominations and voting and announcement are all tied up with the Nebula Awards, so its easy to bundle it in.  The Ray Bradbury award is for science fiction and fantasy movies and is voted on by the members of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.  There is often some overlap with the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form but because of the difference in the voting groups this one seems to veer a bit more toward movies that are heavy on craft while the Hugo tends to lean toward fun popcorn movies.

I tried to watch all the movies before the Nebula voting deadline on end of day March 31st, but I acquire them by renting from Redbox and the release date on Redbox for one of the nominees (Interstellar) isn’t until March 31st.  So that’s not enough time in my schedule to rent the movie and watch it.  I’ll watch that movie later and give it a separate review.

1.  Edge of Tomorrow
, Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Earth is under attack from an alien force known only as mimics, viciously deadly enemies that humans have only one battle against.  Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) works in PR for the US military and has been ordered to the frontier of the war in France.  The general in charge of the war effort orders Cage to go to the front lines to cover the war.  When Cage attempts to blackmail his way out of the mission, he is taken under arrest and dropped at the front with the claim that he had tried to go AWOL and so is quickly forced into service, given only the most passing training in the mechsuits that are standard issue, and dropped into battle with everyone else.  This area was supposed to be fairly quiet, but the battle here is intense.  Cage manages to kill one of the mimics, but dies in the act, only to wake up earlier in the day when he’d woken on the base in handcuffs after the general had him arrested. He dies again, and again, and again.  No one else has any memory of reliving the day except for Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the super-soldier nicknamed “Full Metal Bitch” after she wreaked havoc against the mimics in the only battle against the mimics that the humans have won.  She confides that she had won that battle because she had gone through the same thing he had–as long as he dies he will always restart at the same time and place.

I avoided this movie in theaters, because I haven’t really gone to any Tom Cruise movies since he kindof went publicly nuts.  But I rented this one since it was nominated.  I thought Tom Cruise was back to old form in it, and even if you don’t like it, well you get to see him die literally dozens of times.  I thought Emily Blunt was especially good in her role as Rita, powerful but still affected by the PTSD of dying over and over and seeing so many die around her over.  The looping-after-death element makes for a cool dynamic when well-plotted and when placed against large enough obstacles, which was well done here.  Good spec FX, good casting all around, solidly entertaining.

2.  The Lego Movie, Screenplay by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller  (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Emmett Brickowski is just a regular guy, pretty much the poster child for averageness in a world of Legos.  He does everything exactly the way he’s supposed to do, but no one pays much attention to him.  He meets a strange woman name WyldStyle who tells him he is the subject of a prophecy, the most interesting person in the world and the one who will save everyone from President Business who rules over all of Brickburg.  WyldStyle is a master builder, a rare class of lego person who can take random Lego parts and turn them into a variety of imaginative things.  She is part of an organized rebellion of master builders, and Emmett joins them in their fight.

I enjoyed this story thoroughly from beginning to end.  The voice acting is great all around (particularly that of Chris Pratt as Emmett, Nick Offerson as Metal Beard, Will Arnett as Batman, and Liam Neeson as Good Cop/Bad Cop).  Lots of fun, weird imagination, and as they see out of the worlds they travel and into the real world there’s actually a relatable real life story tied into it.  Great stuff all around.

 3.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

I hadn’t heard of this Marvel franchise until this movie came out, one of the more obscure ones.  In 1988 a young Peter Quill is abducted by aliens by a band of space pirates and is raised as one of them.  In the present day he has his own ship and has grown up to be a bounty hunter (Starlord by name), taking whatever odd jobs he can find for money.  After taking what seems to be a pretty straightforward job to find and deliver an orb, he’s suddenly the focus of attention from the assassin Gamora as well as the bounty hunters Groot (a tree person) and Rocket (a one-of-a-kind genetically modified raccoon) who are all after the orb.  In the scuffle for the orb, they are all arrested and locked in a prison. Gamora tells them of her adoptive father Thanos who wants the orb for nefarious plans. They decide their only chance of escape is to work together, with help from another prisoner Drax the Destroyer, and stop Thanos.

Solidly fun, another Chris Pratt work, probably my favorite role that I have seen him in.  Great casting all around, with Bradley Cooper memorably voicing Rocket.  Action-packed, solidly fun popcorn movie.  Lots of memorable lines, memorable fights, really no complaints all around.

 4.  Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

The actor Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is best known in his role as Birdman in multiple films in the early 90s, one of the earliest widely successful superhero franchises, but after that he has fallen into obscurity, not finding many widely acclaimed roles (sound familiar?).  He is taking his chance, putting everything on the line for one final chance at popularity again by writing and acting in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s Short Story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.  The play is produced by his friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), stars Riggan’s girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and first-time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts).  His daughter, fresh out of rehab, is his assistant.  After an accident takes out the other actor, Ralph, Riggan replaces him at the last minute with talented but unpredictable Mike Shiner (Edward Norton).  Opening night is fast approaching, there are two preview nights to get through before that, and Broadway’s toughest critic has it out for the production.  To make it all worse, Riggan hears Birdman in his head, voicing the thoughts he doesn’t dare voice.

Generally I liked it.  Riggan was relatable, flaws and all.  The casting was solid (Emma Stone in particular I have yet to see play a role unconvincingly).  The situation was full of all kinds of tension.  Even though I generally don’t know a lot of things about filmmaking, I did notice that many of the scenes would’ve been very challenging because there were very long uncut segments which often included an actor walking from one room of the theater to another and then having a conversation–Sometimes they pass through a dark area that would’ve allowed a quick film cut, but there would still be very long segments that would be challenging to complete without making any mistake.  This movie did win the Oscar for Best Picture in 2014.  I found it very interesting that it got the Ray Bradbury nomination too, often there’s not a lot of overlap because the two awards.  In the end I thought it was great in a lot of ways, but as I often find with more artsy films, I thought that it didn’t really tie everything together very well in the end–there were a lot of components that while adding flavor, in retrospect seemed to just add length to the movie that it didn’t need.  We at least find out how the main thread of “how did the premier go?” happens, but there are a lot of momentous moments that seem to start their own major subplot and then are never mentioned again.

5.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Two years after the Battle of New York (depicted in The Avengers), Captain Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) is working for Nick Fury at SHIELD, and trying to adjust to modern society.  SHIELD is on the brink of completing one of its most ambitious projects, a set of three helicarriers that fly in low orbit and link to a network of spy satellites that are meant to find and kill threats to society all over the globe.  Not long before the project comes to fruition, Nick Fury is hit with a large scale and no-holds-barred attack led by a mysterious assassin known only as the Winter Soldier.  Despite all of Fury’s security measures, he barely escapes with his life to warn Rogers that SHIELD is compromised.  Rogers works together with Natalia Romanoff aka the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to get to the bottom of it.

This was one of my least favorite Marvel movies in the recent years of the franchise, which almost always produces movies I enjoy.  There was certainly a lot going on, but the movie was quite long and it seemed like the fight scenes were drawn out way way too long, as if the director thought the movie needed to be padded.  Neither the fight scenes nor the non-fight scenes did a lot to hold my attention.  It might just be because I’m more interested in the superheroes with more fun powers instead of just the shield.  For me the highlight of the movie was the platonic friendship between Rogers and Romanoff–a fun dynamic there.

Movie Review: The Avengers

written by David Steffen

I’ve been a fan of Marvel Comics and their various media productions for a long time. The most recent of their movie productions is “The Avengers.” As far as I know it’s unique in taking several other recent successful Marvel title superhero movies and combining them with the same actors into a single movie. Robert Downey Jr. as Ironman, Chris Evans as Captain America, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor, each of which had held the title role in a recent Marvel movie.

I’ve gotten behind on my Marvel movies in the last few years. I saw Iron Man, but not Thor or Captain America (I think it’s weird that Chris Evans plays both Captain America and Johnny Storm, but I digress), so even though I was aware of these other movies, I hadn’t seen these other characters in action until now.

The movie begins as Thor’s brother Loki crosses into our world with the intent to lead an army of warriors from another dimension to enslave the Earth. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) calls on the disparate group of superheroes codenamed the Avengers to battle this menace. The group has yet to be formed at that point, but the group put together is made up of Iron Man, Black Widow, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. The group has been chosen for their power, not for their teamwork, which becomes clear very early on as squabbles ensue regarding who is making the decisions. But as Loki’s war looms ever larger, they have to find a way to work together to stop this dire threat to Earth.

A fair warning: this is a long movie. 143 minutes long. But that’s to be expected for a movie based around a group of 5 title characters played by big budget actors. To really make a movie based around the whole group, each character has to have some time spent on their character arc, in a way that allows them all to combine into the major plot arc. This was a difficult balance to strike, but I think they did it admirably well. Never did I feel that one of the characters was hogging the screentime, and each character got his chance at scenes that revolved around them, as well as scenes that involved lots of quick fighting and/or dialogue between them and other members of the team.

The plot was reasonably good. Was it corny at times? Sure, I mean its based around a team that includes a Norse God and an over-patriotic 1940s superhero battling space aliens, so a bit of corniness is a given. But the makers of the movie took these strange and disparate, apparently clashing elements, and made them into a cohesive action-packed riproaring good time of a movie. The interactions between these different powerhouse superhumans are one of the best parts, especially Iron Man’s cynical self-reverence onscreen with Captain America’s “ask what you can do for your country” attitude. Tony Stark/Iron Man still gets the best clever lines, and Downey pulls them off wonderfully.

THE best part, though (and this surprised me) was watching the Incredible Hulk smash… well, pretty much whatever gets in his way. I’m surprised because I would’ve expected to prefer something less predictable and more intellectual. I mean, it’s no mystery that the Hulk can pretty much smash anything and is apparently impervious to everything, so where’s the tension? Maybe that’s a way in which movies can have a different kind of appeal that written work. I didn’t feel any tension about the Hulk because I knew he’d survive and I knew he’d wreck a lot of stuff in the process, but the sheer spectacle of his fighting was like watching a natural disaster, inevitable destruction after which all you can do is try to clean up. If they’d filled a whole movie with that I probably would’ve gotten bored (I haven’t seen the Eric Bana and Edward Norton Hulk movies of the last ten years) but it was paced very well so that the Hulk only came out a few times but he stole the stage every time he did.

I’d recommend this movie for any comic fan, action fan, anyone who just wants a good riproaring time.


Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World

written by David Steffen

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World may be one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s based on a comic book which I’ve never read (though I now intend to). Whether you like it or not depends almost entirely on whether you like your movies with a heavy dose of weird. For me, I like when a director dares to stray from Hollywood formulas and actually has the guts to try something different, even if the results aren’t spectacular. In this case, the results ARE spectacular, at least to my tastes. It’s a movie that will probably get love or hate reactions depending on if it hits your sense of humor. Some, but nowhere near all, of the humor is targeted toward video game and graphic novel aficionados such as myself. If you’re in that group, you’ll get a few more of the jokes, but if you’re not there is still plenty of humor for you, and video game knowledge is never vital for understanding the movie. I’m not going to hold my breath for it to win an Oscar, as I’ve lost all faith in the Academy’s willingness to consider awesome speculative fiction movies, or any movies that don’t fit its own cookie cutter shape (different than the blockbuster cookie cutter, but still a cookie cutte). But for a fun movie, especially if you’re squarely in the center of the target demographic like I am, it’s a huge hit, and is now on my short list of favorite movies. This will most definitely be on my Christmas list.


As the movie starts, the setting seems to be relatively mundane, and it stays that way for quite a while despite the strange and neurotic characters that populate it. Scott Pilgrim is a 23-year-old layabout with a garage band called Sex Bobomb (there’s one of those video game in-jokes). He has a 17-year old girlfriend in high school, pretty much as innocent as they come–they’ve been dating for weeks and they haven’t quite worked their way up to hold hands. Oddly, her name is Knives Chau. Despite this rather familiar setting, there are plenty of odd things about it, such as the fact that Scott sleeps in the same bed with his gay roommate (Scott himself is not gay). His roommate is played by Kieran Culkin, in the first acting role as an adult that I have seen him in. Yup, he still looks exactly like Macaulay Culkin but with dark hair, and his slightly creepy boyish looks just add to the comedy of his character. The relationships between the characters are weird and often dysfunctional, and played just the right way to keep the humor rolling as the plot continues.

From the beginning there are some strange visual effects, most of them evoking a comic book feel. Most sound effects are accompanied by a written sound effect somewhere on the screen. The doorbell is associated with a “Ding Dong!” popping up on the wall, and the phone is accompanied by a “Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing”. It’s a fun effect and they never overplayed its effect.

Throughout the movie, Scott has a series of weird dreams, most of them revolving around a mystery girl who he has never seen in real life. Until he runs into her at a party in all her pink haired goggled glory, she introduces herself as Ramona Flowers. He becomes immediately infatuated with her, and starts trying to start a relationship with her (without telling Knives). Meanwhile, Sex Bobomb enrolls in a local Battle of the Bands competition and it’s at the first round of that competition that the real premise of the movie really takes off. At the competition, Scott is attacked by one of Ramona’s exes. He is, in fact, part of the League of Evil Exes, an organization of her disgruntled exes dedicating itself to intercepting any of Ramona’s future love interests. To win the right to date her, Scott has to defeat all seven of her exes, each of them stranger than the last.

There are quite a few fairly well known actors in the movie, including Jason Schwartzman (Bored to Death, The Darjeeling Limited, Rushmore), Chris Evans (Fantastic Four, Push), Michael Cera in the title role (Arrested Development, Superbad, Youth in Revolt), and one big guest star but the movie doesn’t just try to ride their popularity. In fact, the roles and lines are often so absurd that it’s extra fun because these guys do not take themselves too seriously.

The fight scenes are what makes the movie really unique. Each one is different from the others, and most of them evoke a sort of Anime fight feel. They’re not even slightly realistic, with each of the exes tending to have some kind of improbable superhero-like power, and the effects showing these off are vibrant, even while the banter and stupid lines are hilarious.

My Views

I was pretty certain I would like it from the moment the Universal logo came on the screen in 8-bit color and graphics (picture the original NES circa 1985). And then recognizable Legend of Zelda theme music within the first few minutes.

Long story short: I loved it. If you like special effects, video games or comics, absurd humor, or if you just like movies that take the path less traveled, give this movie a try. Even before the fight scenes the special effects are great, and they just get better and better as the movie goes on. One of the greatest things is that I only saw one preview before the movie came out so I had little idea what to expect–too many times I have to shut my eyes when I keep seeing trailers because they keep giving away important details. Whenever there’s not action, there’s comedy, and there were some scenes that were so funny I had to laugh into my hand to keep from drowning out the movie with my guffaws. Great stuff!

One of the greatest parts is that the writers/director are aware of all the movie/game/comic cliches and they played them off very well for comedy effect. For instance, before they go to the opening competition of the Battle of the Bands, Scott gets an email from the first evil ex, telling him of the upcoming fight to the death. Scott reads it aloud for the audience, and we’re absorbing the information with a grin and wide eyes until Scott groans and deletes the email before finishing it before it’s so fatally boring. We’re expecting this to be the vital info-dump explaining the premise of the movie and it just gets cut off in the middle. So when the ex shows up, he has to re-explain everything from scratch, exasperated that Scott has such poor etiquette to not even read it.

All in all, I’d highly recommend it if you like a good laugh, if you like special effects or supernatural fight scenes, or if you just like a movie that doesn’t come from the Hollywood movie templates. Go see it in theatres while you still can–the special effects make it worth it.


Not too many spoilers here, there were just one spoilerific thing I wanted to mention that particularly tickled me. Near the end of the movie, after he defeats all of the exes, Scott meets a shadow-version of himself. This is an old, old video game trope, the shadow self adversary. It’s always a grueling battle because your enemy has the exact same weaknesses and strengths as you. So when the shadow Scott shows up, I was mentally rubbing my hands together with glee. Ramona and Knives offer to join in the fight but he tells them this is one for him alone. They leave him alone to fight, cut scene, and the two Scott show up a while later after they’ve stopped at a waffle house (foregoing the fight entirely). “We really have a lot in common,” Scott says. Loved it. 🙂

Movie Review: Push

Push Movie Poster
Push Movie Poster

Nicely enough, The Curse did not manifest itself too strongly this time. My wife and I have been plagued with a particular curse that follows us to events–concerts, hockey games, movies. You know that one guy in the stands that is so annoying you have to assume he’s never been in public before? The next time you see him, look in the seats immediately surrounding him, because we’re guaranteed to be right in front of, behind, or next to him.
This time wasn’t too bad in that regard. true, 5 of the other 10 people in the movie theatre were seated together in the row just behind, and they did laugh uproariously at the most unusual times, pretty much whenever anybody died, but at least they didn’t talk throughout it, and I didn’t hear anybody getting intimate (yup, that happened once during “Eastern Promises”, during Viggo’s nude fight scene and let me tell you, that is the last scene in any movie I would expect anyone to be turned on–it wasn’t that kind of nudity!)

I just saw Push today at the MoA. I went with low expectations, just looking for something to do. I was reasonably satisfied with this one. I think they made good use of the premise, and took it as far as it could go. That’s all I could ask for. Most of all, it provided what the previews had led me to expect. Plenty of action, shiny spec fx, and a relatively good plot. For me this was a great premise. I’ve always been interested in plots about people with extra abilities–X-men being a particular favorite.

The premise is this: In WWII, the Nazis tried to create armies of supersoldiers. They failed, but in the following decades, other governments set up research programs to continue this research. They categorized and trained those with abilities, mostly mentally based. The two main characters are Nick and Cassie. Nick is played by Chris Evans who you may know as Johnny Storm from the 2 recent Fantastic 4 movies. He’s a Mover, a telekinetic (each class of people has a clever little name like this). I wouldn’t say he’s the best actor in the world, but he didn’t turn me off either. Cassie is played by Dakota Fanning. She was reasonably good, though I could’ve done without seeing the preteen in a mini-skirt throughout the whole film. She’s a Watcher, someone who can see glimpses of possible futures. They’re both on the run from Division, the US organization that tries to control these special people: Nick because his father was killed by Division when he was a boy, and Cassie because she wants to rescue her mother from Division where she’s been held captive. They (and everyone else) are looking for Kira, a Pusher. Pushers are the most scary kind, they can make people believe and do whatever they want to. On a random sidenote, Kira looks almost exactly like Kim from Kath and Kim (who’s played by Selma Blair).
Most of the move takes place in Hong Kong, which I thought was particularly cool since I’ve been there a couple of times for business trips.

The main things I didn’t like about this movie:
1. too much preteen Dakota Fanning in a mini-skirt
2. At least twice they used a real fakey solution to a near-death situation: the protagonists are about to be killed, but an enemy Watcher says “no, don’t kill them, that could change the future” so they let them go to fight another day. It made sense in the context of the movie, but it still felt cheap, like the writers had written themselves into a corner and just needed a quick fix to get them out.
3. This requires a spoiler, so if you want to see the money you might not want to read on.


3. About halfway through the movie they realize the enemy Watcher is better than Cassie, so they have to find a way to be totally unpredictable. So Nick writes bunch of instructions for everybody in sealed envelopes, including for himself, and then he has his memory wiped by someone with that ability. Again, it made sense in the context of the movie, but it was rather annoying at times, because NONE of the main characters had a clue what the plan was. They just opened the envelopes and did what they were told to do, and everything worked out in the end.

The rest of the movie:
The whole object of the movie is to find a serum that boosts abilities to a much higher degree. Division wants it so that they can create their own army and keep others from finding the serum’s secret. Cassie wants it so she can use it bargain for her mother. A Hong Kong crime family, with many henchmen with abilities, is the third side.

The fight scene at the end was just awesome! With all three sides of the conflict there, it was very chaotic. With Pushers, Watchers, Bleeders, Movers, etc.. all fighting against each other, deflecting bullets. Kira was really scary in that scene, using her mind manipulation to turn enemies against her and recruit soldiers to protect her.

The ending was relatively happen, with open elements to guess what you will. Nick and Kira ended up together, though I had to wonder how you could ever trust someone who could manipulate your mind to that degree. All in all, I really enjoyed it.