Friday, December 20, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (spoiler-free review)

Here are links to my spoiler-free reviews of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, which have links to the spoiler reviews. There will also be a spoiler review of this movie, linked at the end.

I don't write reviews much anymore. I'm writing this one primarily because this is the last movie of the Skywalker Saga, and I like finishing things. When I did write reviews, my mandate was providing guidance for whether or not the reader will like the movie in question. So, will you, dear reader, like Rise of Skywalker? As usual, it depends.

I'm going to presume you have seen at least Episodes VII and VIII. This, as the last of that trilogy, needs to deal with the threats and promises made in the first two and arrive at a conclusion. Many people disliked the setup in VII and VIII, though, so for them, is it worth sitting through IX? Probably not, for the ones who really hated one or both. While IX does answer a lot of questions, it's not an Original Trilogy film, and I don't think it will provide relief for people who wanted the new trilogy to be that.

For the people who really liked the first two, the third is a must-watch, of course, and I think the vast majority of those should like it. There are a couple disconcertingly unforeshadowed plot points, and some other weak bits, but not enough to ruin the movie, not by far.

The people in between are the question, then, and the answer really depends on why they disliked parts of VII and/or VIII. For those who complained that VII was too derivative - let me digress a moment. Someone pointed out recently that not only was VII deliberately derivative, it was derivative in a very specific way. Where the Original Trilogy's Empire was coded as (inspired by) Nazis, VII's New Order was coded as neonazis. In that sense, the movie did exactly what it set out to do.

Back to IX, I don't think anyone will complain that it is derivative. There are some genuine surprises, and it does not mirror the structure of VI, III, or any other Star Wars movie.

For those who complained about the plot structure of VIII, IX addresses most of that. I've seen a headline accusing IX of tarnishing Rian Johnson's legacy, which is a weird flex, but ok. For the three people who hate Abrams' VII but love Johnson's VIII, that will be a problem. For the much larger number who were on board with Abrams and felt Johnson strayed from the course, Abrams is back with a course correction.

For those who dislike Rey in particular, IX probably won't make that go away.

For those who dislike Finn, the best I can say is that this is the first movie in which he is not trying to run away. Whether that helps or not I can't say.

For those who liked Poe in VII and hated what Johnson did with him in VIII, don't worry about it.

For those who hated Kylo Ren... I'm not sure. I liked his arc in IX, but I suspect that not everyone will.

For those who hated what VIII did with Snoke, IX might satisfy you.

So there you have it - I think most people will like this film, but it won't be universal.

The rest of my thoughts are in the spoiler review.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (spoiler review)

This review has spoilers. For the non-spoiler review of this movie, click here.

Episode IX is in a tough spot. Not only does it need to finish the much-criticized Sequel Trilogy, it also need to wrap up the entirety of the Skywalker Saga. In order to understand whether or not it does this, we need to understand what narrative promises were made throughout the Saga.

Despite the general feeling that nothing important happens in Episode I (reflected in its exclusion from the Machete Order), for this purpose it is the most important film. While Episode IV was obviously the first movie made, Episode I is chronologically first, and the last movie needs to conclude the story that was started there. I'll return to the Original Trilogy in a bit.

Episode I introduced the idea of Anakin Skywalker as the Chosen One, and it introduced Palpatine. The Chosen One's destiny to bring balance to the Force never made much sense - at the time of Episode I, the Force's imbalance was decidedly in the Light Side's favor, so balance shouldn't have been desirable from a Jedi point of view. Regardless of this, Anakin died in Episode VI with no balance in sight - Luke was the only known trained Force-user at that point, and he was definitely Jedi-aligned. Episode VII flipped the balance, removing Luke from the Force and leaving Kylo Ren as the only active Force-user (not counting Leia and the Knights of Ren).

Rey's arrival then brought something similar to balance, or at least opposition, but there are two issues. The first is that the implied consequence of the prophesied balance is harmony, which the Rey-Ren dynamic certainly lacked. The second is that Rey is not a descendant of Anakin. It would seem, then, that the only way to pay off the Anakin-as-Chosen-One arc would be for Kylo Ren to revert to Ben Solo (Skywalker), but as something more nuanced than a Jedi. That, after all, was the original problem: the Jedi represent pure good, and the Sith represent pure evil, and extremes don't balance. And that sort of is what happened, but not in the way anyone expected.

The other half of the setup from Episode I involved Palpatine. As the main plot driver for the first six movies, it appeared that his direct involvement was done there. In Episodes VII and VIII, his relevance was tertiary at best - Kylo Ren venerated the version of Vader who was created by Palpatine. Episode IX brings him back, though, and returns him to his place as the primary villain. It then does some serious retconning, both in asserting that Snoke was a Palpatine puppet the entire time, and in declaring that Rey is a Palpatine. This really, really could have used some foreshadowing. Even a passing mention in the Prequel Trilogy that Palpatine had a family would have made this reveal much more palatable.

As a narrative shape, though, this is actually quite satisfying. The Sequel Trilogy is the story of the grandchildren of Skywalker and Palpatine, with the Skywalker as villain and the Palpatine as hero. At the last, the two confront Palpatine together, and here the structure breaks down a little. Rather than Skywalker defeating Palpatine, it is Palpatine who defeats Palpatine, and if you think I'm being obtuse with naming here, I'm doing it on purpose. In part because Sheev is a terrible name, and in part because it's not Rey who kills him. Palpatine kills himself with the reflection of his own power, and that symbology is important. The last act of the last living Skywalker, then, is to give his life force to Rey, and this too is symbolically important. The filmmakers were careful to show throughout Episodes VIII and IX that Rey was not pure good, and Ren was not pure evil. Ben's resurrection of Rey is the payoff of the prophecy to bring balance to the Force, in the person of Rey. Ben was too damaged to play that role himself, but Rey should be able to balance both sides of the Force. The fact that she takes the Skywalker name at the end shows that she aligns with good, but we assume that she will be more moderate than the Jedi of old. Besides, the good guys need to win in the end.

So, Episode IX does indeed wrap up the story set down in Episode I. What of the Original Trilogy, then? Episode IV does not make any narrative promises that are unresolved at the end of the movie. It is the only self-contained story in the nonology. Episode V is the one that made promises and complicated the mythos, which may be why it is so revered. However, all of those promises were paid off at the end of Episode VI. There was not yet any concept of balancing the Force - in those days, a win for the Light Side and a promise of a return of the Jedi was enough. By bookending the Original Trilogy with additional context, promises, and resolutions, though, the narrative importance of those original films is diminished. The good guys didn't really win. No one lived happily ever after. I think this is the root of much of the dissatisfaction of the older generations of Star Wars fans with regards to the new films. We mostly just ignored the Prequel Trilogy, but the Sequel Trilogy makes that hard to do.

How is Rise of Skywalker as a film in itself, though? As mentioned above, Rey's reveal was problematically unforeshadowed, though narratively good. I also have a lot of questions about the dagger - who made that thing, when, and why? It clearly couldn't have been used until after the Death Star crashed on Endor, but who had the knowledge of Old Sith to make it after that? If it was made beforehand, it must have been done as prophecy, and again - why? Other than those two, though, my main criticism of the film is that it is complex. While it's not hard to follow everything, it's a lot to take in.

There are also the usual Star Wars-isms.
An entire fleet of Star Destroyers with miniaturized Death Star cannons? Sure, why not? Who built those things? Who was crewing them at the end? Someone in the New Order noted the need to recruit more, but they had no time for it.
Inexplicable physics? Sure, why not. Hyperspace-skipping is now a thing, purely because it looked cool on film. There is some kind of red barrier between the Core Worlds and the Unknown Regions, because the plot demanded an impediment.

On the plus side, the cinematography is stunning, as has been the norm in the Sequel Trilogy. While not as strikingly colorful as VIII, IX has much of visual interest. And while none of the lightsaber fights stand up to the Snoke's Guards scene in VIII, they don't disappoint. Also, Ren's crossguard gets used for defense, so that's nice.

I've been hard on Adam Driver, but I was very impressed with his last few scenes. The transformation from Kylo Ren to Ben Solo is good acting work. It was nice to see Lando, though I have to try pretty hard not to be creeped out by his last interaction. I strongly suspect that Han's scene was supposed to feature Leia instead, but Harrison Ford did a very nice job there, and it parallels nicely with the scene in VII. JJ Abrams clearly didn't want to feature Rose, but he didn't remove her, he didn't kill her off, and he didn't shove her entirely to the background - generous of him, and nice for the actress.

Overall, I think I liked the film. It has problems, but all the Star Wars films do. It entertains with action, drama, and humor, with only a few jarring bits. And it wraps up the Skywalker Saga, the most dysfunctional set of nine movies you'll ever find, in a satisfactory way.

Not bad.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

What is the Wheel of Time and why should I care?

This post is aimed at people who have not read the Wheel of Time books, but have heard about it due to the news surrounding the upcoming TV show.

The Wheel of Time is a lengthy high-fantasy book series by Robert Jordan (though the last three were completed by Brandon Sanderson after Jordan died. Probably the easiest way to explain the importance of the Wheel of Time is to note that when A Game of Thrones was published in 1996, it carried a cover blurb recommendation from Robert Jordan, and that was a significant factor in my acquaintances deciding to read that series. The Wheel of Time was Game of Thrones before Game of Thrones dethroned it (sorry).

This is especially relevant because it's blatantly obvious that Amazon is making the Wheel of Time TV show to capitalize on the immense popularity of the Game of Thrones TV show. The comparisons go deeper than that, though. Both Jordan and Martin had (have) a really serious problem which I like to call Epic Fantasy Bloat. This is where the author keeps introducing more and more characters and plotlines until there is so much going on that each book barely advances the overall progress of the story. Martin nominally attempted to solve this problem by killing off major characters, but this was a failure - he still needed to split the events of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons into two volumes, even though they cover the same period of time. Likewise, the Wheel of Time's tenth (yes, tenth) book contains material which mostly overlaps the previous book. The fan outcry was so intense that Jordan promised to speed things up, which he did (though he died after the eleventh book).

The Wheel of Time book series was enormously popular, selling over 80 million total copies. Why? Similar reasons to Game of Thrones: it features a richly detailed secondary fantasy world with large amounts of political intrigue and action. That, however, is about where the comparisons end. Jordan was extremely long-winded even in comparison to Martin. Even in books where important things actually happened, he was in no hurry to get to them. I believe he was trying to follow in the footsteps of Tolkien, whose verbosity is legendary. Instead of attaining a dignified epic narrative, though, Jordan produced an infuriatingly languorous meander through his world. For fans (and believe it or not, I'm a fan), this is bearable because of the incredible depth and detail. If you think Game of Thrones is complex, it's got nothing on the Wheel of Time.

There are also a large number of people who stopped reading the series partway through, and it's important to understand why. Obviously, the slow pace is off-putting for many. The readers with insufficient tolerance for such usually stop after book one or three. Book two is also slightly repetitive of book one, so many people stop there. More importantly, though, Jordan's character portrayal varies from shallow to offensive, which is a significant problem that the writers of the TV show will need to deal with.

The world of the Wheel of Time is (at the start, at least) one where only a small group of women have magic. This leads to a gendered power imbalance that is politically and socially important, and the series dwells heavily on it. In addition, many of the early points of view are of teenaged boys and girls, who spend a lot of time angsting about each other, as teenagers do. Jordan, though, was 41 by the time the first book was published, and it shows. The really sad part is that he thought he was being progressive (Heinlein had the same issue, but that's a different essay). The series features a lot of strong female characters who have their own story arcs - it passes the Mako Mori test many times over. However, in any given moment the portrayal of any given woman is more likely to be caricature than character. One character was notorious for tugging on her braid when angry, and this was her defining characteristic until well into the series. Many of the women repeatedly cross their arms under their breasts when angry, usually at men. Later in the series, there are some problematic male-fantasy-centered story elements which I won't get into for spoiler reasons. What I'm saying is that while Jordan thought he was doing a great job of writing women, he wasn't. Compared to most of what came before him (including but hardly limited to Tolkien) he was downright fantastic, but even in the 90s when the first several books came out, his depictions ranged from cringy to offensive. Now, in the 2010s, those aspects of the books are unacceptable. The writers of the TV show will need to do better.

Even setting aside the gender issues, Jordan was frequently guilty of lazy plotting. There are many, large, world-altering sections of plot that could have been solved by characters communicating with each other. These characters had the means and motive to do so, but Jordan invented half-assed reasons for them not to so that the plot would continue moving in the direction he wanted. This is an unforgivable sin of writing.

The good news is that the TV show has a real opportunity to improve a series that is beloved by many. Just as the Game of Thrones TV show improved on the books by cutting out large parts of it (until, of course, they ran out of books and floundered), the Wheel of Time TV show can improve on the books by turning a long-winded slog into a tight, exciting narrative. Will they actually do this? I don't know. Will they go too far, and lose the depth of the books? That is unfortunately possible, as there are several recent examples of bad fantasy adaptations.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood

This review will contain spoilers. However, it will contain spoilers that I really wish I had known about before going to see the film.

I'm going to put this right up front: do you think about the Manson murders on a daily basis? I don't. I was vaguely aware that they happened, but they're not important to my life, nor was I under the impression that they were important to history in general. Apparently some people think they mark the end of an era (the fact that they conveniently happened at the end of a decade helps with that, but I wasn't particularly aware of what year they happened in, because again - not relevant to my life). Without an awareness of the particulars of the Manson murders, though, this movies makes not a damn bit of sense. Sure, the plot of the main characters is relatively coherent. DiCaprio's character is an actor struggling to deal with his declining fame, and that's fairly interesting, though told at a glacially plodding pace. Pitt's character is DiCaprio's character's stunt double who shares a bit of that plot and also dips into the Manson thing, except no one ever mentions that name. Then there's Margot Robbie's character, who wanders around being vacantly pretty, and who happens to live next door to DiCaprio's character with her husband, Roman Polanski. This is the part where people who actually know something about the Manson murders are going to think I'm an idiot. But honestly, the fact that Polanski has spent the last forty years in exile because he drugged and raped a 13-year-old is the only thing I think of when his name comes up.

So if you're going to see this movie, this is what you need to know: in real life, Charles Manson's followers brutally murdered Polanski's wife and some friends at Polanski's house while he was elsewhere. Tarantino clearly expects the audience to know that, and the movie doesn't make sense without that knowledge.

Other than that, you ask, how was the movie? Kinda boring, honestly. It is very long, and completely unhurried to get anywhere. Tarantino appears to expect that the audience will be satisfied with the atmosphere that he has created. That's what the trailer conveys, after all - it promises a stylish, sassy, groovy kind of movie. There is a bit of that, but there are also a lot of long, long tracking shots where nothing much happens. Many of them involve feet.

This is a Tarantino movie, so one might expect bloody, gratuitous violence. That is, after all, what he made his name on. This movie has only one scene of Tarantino-style violence, but it is pretty graphic and very specifically involves the mutilation of women. Just so you know.

As far as the craft of filmmaking goes - well, Tarantino is an artist. Aside from the gratuitous tracking shots, the cinematography is lovely. There is a lot of clever meta-ness to the film, since it involves actors playing actors making movies. Hollywood loves that stuff, and I'll be interested to see if it gets award nominations, or if the Academy will be scared off by the vandalized billboards. The acting is excellent, though I could really do without Emile Hirsch and his conviction for assault (strangling a woman to unconsciousness). Overall, though, I really can't recommend the film. It has its moments, but not enough of them, and with a severe lack of an editor willing to tell Tarantino that the movie didn't need to be 2 hours 45 minutes long. Or maybe it was a major feat getting it down that far, since James Marsden and Tim Roth filmed parts that didn't make it into the movie.

Performance: 4/5
Plot: 2/5
Production: 4/5
Overall: 2/5
Bechdel: Fail
Mako Mori: Fail

Friday, March 30, 2018

Ready Player One

Believe it or not, this is a review of Ready Player One.

Let's talk about adaptations from one medium to another. Specifically, the most common adaptation, book to movie.

But first, a story. I used to go to Comic Con when I lived in San Diego, and I saw a lot of neat things, most of which I've long since forgotten. One thing I haven't forgotten is the Stardust panel, which I presume was 2006. Actually, I have forgotten most of it, but one thing in particular stuck with me. In the Q&A portion, someone asked if the ending of the movie was the same as the ending of the book. For those who don't know, the ending is not the same - not at all. Neil Gaiman was there, and he paused, and looked serious, and then said words that I wish I had a recording of. Wait, scratch that - there's totally a video of this on YouTube. It's not exactly how I remember it, but it's the right answer. Just watch this and then come back.

Books and movies are different things. Even good movie adaptations aren't the same thing as the book, Stardust being an excellent example. Sometimes, a movie adaptation only loosely resembles the book - Starship Troopers, for instance, used some names from the book but completely changed plot, tone, and theme. For the most part, though, even movie adaptations that I don't like very much made the specific changes they made in order to make a coherent movie out of something that is inherently not a movie. Or, specific parts of otherwise decent adaptations might diverge from the source material in order to make the movie flow. In The Two Towers, for instance, Jackson changed Faramir's character specifically to influence the tension arc of the movie. I, like many Faramir fans, intensely dislike that change, but I understand why it was done, and the movie overall is still good.

Sometimes, a filmmaker adds or changes things for no discernible reason. For instance, Jackson's meddling with The Hobbit, which I have complained about at length elsewhere.

And, at last, this is what I have to say about Ready Player One: this is a perfectly fine adaptation of the book. The end result is a fun movie which has no more flaws than the source material does (the source material has some egregious flaws, largely but not exclusively in regards to sexism). It does not contain all the elements of the book, because it is not a book. Significant plot elements were changed, either to make the story more movie-like or because they couldn't get the rights - hard to say which in some cases. The end result, though, has fundamentally the same characters, structure, and plot arc that the book does, allowing for condensing due to time pressure.

And just in case you somehow read this far and haven't already read the book: Ready Player One is a nerdy and kinda shallow semi-apocalyptic sci-fi action movie, or a really nerdy and kinda dark (but still shallow) semi-apocalyptic sci-fi book. Not both at the same time.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

This review will be spoiler-free, assuming you have seen the trailer.

I am mostly writing this because as of the afternoon of December 15, Last Jedi has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 93% with critics, and only a 56% audience score.

This is a link to my review of The Force Awakens. It has a long explanation of my relationship with Star Wars, which I will briefly revisit here.

I love Star Wars. The movies are generally not very good. The books are usually not great, with some notable exceptions. But the idea of Star Wars, that is good. At its essence, Star Wars is a simple fantasy: good-vs-evil, plucky rebels against the dictator, but with space wizards and starships instead of regular wizards and horses. This is, I think, part of where the prequel trilogy went wrong, but I won't dwell on that here.

Episode VII, The Force Awakens, brought the series back to its roots, which was a cause of much complaint among the fanbase. Because the film had such structural similarity to Episode IV, irrational expectations were generated for Episode VIII. Almost everyone agrees that Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film. There are a lot of reasons for this, which I'm also not going to go into now, but the upshot is that there was strangely a lot of pressure on the middle film of this trilogy, even though that's a tradition weak spot in any trilogy structure.

The Last Jedi is not Empire. There are actually some similarities - notably the apprentice training with a master, and rebels fleeing a superior enemy - but they play out in dramatically different ways than they did in Empire. This by itself will cause some people to dislike the film. No other franchise raises hopes like Star Wars, usually higher than can possibly be fulfilled.

There are some significant problems with Last Jedi. For one, it is extremely long. About three quarters of the way through, I started wondering how they were going to wrap up all of the plot threads they had set in motion and arrive at an ending. This brings me to a second problem: the film has several plot threads which fizzle out or dead end in ways that are less than satisfying. The most charitable thing that can be said about this is that the film keeps the audience guessing as to what is going to happen next. Less charitably, this movie has too much going on at a structural level. I also have some issue with matters of in-universe physical continuity that can't be discussed without spoilers.

That said, I liked this movie. I'll need to watch it again to see if I feel differently now that I know how the plot goes. The filmmakers made some bold choices, which I appreciate. As usual, the visual effects are top-notch. Some scenes are stunningly executed, enough to draw gasps from the audience. The score is excellent. The fight choreography is better than Episode VII. There is excellent use of color and contrast to make the film visually interesting. While the pacing drags in places, there are a number of good action sequences, and also some decently emotional bits and some humor to break the tension.

Speaking of which, I was worried that the Porgs would be obnoxious, but they don't bother me. I love the crystal foxes, though as the name of the website might indicate, I'm biased.

Most other topics I might want to discuss involve spoilers, which I will address in a different post.

So, why do audiences like this movie so much less than the critics do? Keeping in mind that critics are pretty much paid to dislike movies, and that being a movie critic is a soul-crushing job that will such any joy you might have ever had for movies out of you... ahem. Reasons why I don't review much anymore.
I suspect that a lot of it comes down to expectations. The people leaving feedback on Rotten Tomatoes right now are the people invested enough to go to Thursday showings. I don't think any movie could have satisfied all of them. Combined with the very real problems discussed above, I'm somewhat surprised that a majority of audience feedback is positive.

So, will you like it? Good question. The primary reason I started doing this was to give some advice on what kind of person would like a given movie, but this one is tough. If you hated Force Awakens, this isn't likely to redeem the series for you, though I suspect you will think it's better, at least. If you loved Force Awakens, you should like this too. If you're in between, it probably depends (like the force cave on Dagobah) on the baggage you bring with you. Remember that Star Wars is space fantasy, an adventure story. It is not high cinema, and has never been known for its outstanding plotting or acting. If you reacted badly to that last sentence, maybe wait and catch this on video.

The spoiler version of this review is here.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde is an extremely good action film. It has a solid plot, good writing, better acting, stunning cinematography and action sequences, and it absolutely nails the period.

It is set in Berlin at the tail end of the Cold War, and is in many ways a standard spy-action film. We've seen similar things out of Bond and Bourne, among others. Atomic Blonde has a real style to it, though, both in its visual aesthetic and its effective use of music, that sets it apart.

This is very much an R-rated movie. It has nudity, it has language, and it has lots and lots of violence. Some of the fight scenes are breathtakingly brutal. The movie does also have talking, so don't expect wall-to-wall action, but it has enough action to support the plot and vice versa.

Oh, and it also passes both Bechdel and Mako Mori.

The cinematography on this movie is good enough that I looked up the directory of photography. His name is Jonathan Sela, and his credits mostly include music videos (Wrecking Ball, for instance). His feature film credits are limited, but do include John Wick, which is presumably where he met David Leitch, the director of Atomic Blonde. Leitch has worked as a stuntman and stunt coordinator for a couple decades, which explains rather a lot. Both of them deserve lots of credit for getting this film right, and I'm pleased to note that they are working together again on Deadpool 2.

Bottom line: if you like action movies, and none of the above specifically turned you off, go see Atomic Blonde.

Sunday, July 23, 2017


Dunkirk is, as of this writing, getting 92% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. I'm with the other eight percent.

The movie has many positive qualities, by far the best of which is the cinematography. I was lucky enough to see it projected in 80mm, which definitely gives a better experience than standard 35mm or digital projection. The actors all delivered fine performances. The sound was masterfully mixed.

Unfortunately, none of that makes up for the film's two enormous flaws:

First, the narrative is badly disjointed, jumping back and forth across the timeline as it moves from story to story. Some of this is caused by the plot including so many disparate parts, but that's no excuse. Christopher Nolan, who wrote, directed, and produced, has moved well past artistic license with story structure (which he did well in Inception) into needless muddling. It is very possible that an editor could create a version of this move which works much better than the one I saw.

Second, the vast majority of the characters lack... well, character. This isn't the fault of the actors - as I said, they did a fine job. The problem is the script, which completely fails to give the audience reasons to care about the people on screen other than the direness of their circumstances. Most of them barely have names, and none of them have any evidence of interesting qualities other than the desire to survive - with the welcome exception of the featured civilians.

So what we end up with is an engaging, immersive film that utterly fails to be compelling on a personal level (except for the small percentage of the movie which focuses on said civilians).

Slight spoilers in the last paragraph:
Aside from the previous complaints, I have one other, lesser one: the enemy is faceless. They're hardly referred to as Germans at all - the opening text calls them "enemy", and only a couple lines of dialogue name them. While the effects of the German siege are depicted frequently, at no point is any German face depicted in focus - only airplanes, bombs, and bullets. Perhaps this was done to avoid the appearance of offending modern Germans, or perhaps it was an artistic decision to focus on the British soldiers and their plight. Either way, the lack of a visible antagonist further dehumanizes a movie which already lacks in that regard.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian is a reasonably enjoyable sci-fi adventure film. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, actually a good movie, but if you're willing to ignore its more glaring defects, it's quite fun. By far its best quality is the visual spectacle. The advertisements quote a review comparing it to Avatar, which is an easy (and lazy) comparison to make - Valerian's primary alien design is a smaller, pearlescent version of Avatar's aliens. There is also a plot point or two that are reminiscent of Avatar, but otherwise Valerian has more in common with Guardians of the Galaxy or Jupiter Ascending.

Like Jupiter Ascending, it's really best not to look at the plot too hard. Luc Besson wrote the script himself, which might not have been the best of ideas. There is, for instance, a particularly egregious maid-and-butler scene (where characters talk about things they should already know as a way of telling the audience). The science is laughably bad, but if you were expecting hard sci-fi you should have been paying more attention.

Like the latest Pirates movie, the romance subplot between the two leads is somewhat problematic, forced, and unnecessary. It is, however, entirely typical, unfortunately.

This is a movie you'll want to see on the big screen to get the full effect of the visuals, but you might catch a discount showing, and make sure your disbelief (and possibly your critical thinking skills) are well and truly suspended.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Assassin's Creed

I wasn't really planning to see Assassin's Creed. While I am a fan of action movies, I've never played any of the Assassin's Creed games, and the trailer wasn't impressive. Thanks to the generosity of some friends, though, I did see it, so you get this summary of how I feel about this movie:

You know how there are cheap/bootleg DVDs out there with English subtitles done by people who don't really know English very well? For example, some friends had a copy of an anime called Ayashi no Ceres with these sorts of subtitles. There's a scene where a character falls screaming off a bridge, which was subtitled "Disguusttiing!!"
The dialogue in this movie is like someone took an English script, had one of those guys translate it, then another one translate it back, and shot that.

Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Irons are all fine actors, and they performed their lines with great feeling and gravity - but much of it is nonsense. This isn't even counting the parts that were supposed to be nonsense - don't get me started on genetic memory. No, even if you swallow the ludicrous premise (helpfully laid out in the trailer), the plot makes little to no sense.

Now, it's an action movie. There are a lot of very good, or at least fun, action movies without much in the way of plot or dialogue. This isn't one of those. The action sequences can best be described as okay. They're not bad, but they're very much not good either. They are not improved by shaky-cam and a lot of murky lighting.

On top of all this, the cinematography is atrocious. The director makes extensive use of long soaring aerial shots, which I understand is meant to evoke the eagle which is associated with the assassins. This sort of thing can be done well. Here, though, these shots aren't grand and sweeping so much as pointless wastes of time. If they'd used half as many, I'd have gotten ten minutes of my life back.

So, it has a terrible script, a bad plot, and okay action. The acting is fine, but... I can't help but think that Marion Cotillard spent much of her time on set wondering how an Oscar-winning actress ended up in this piece of crap.

Performance: 3/5
Plot: 1/5
Production: 1/5
Overall: 1/5
Bechdel: Fail (C)
Mako Mori: Pass
What are these?

Thursday, December 22, 2016


I don't think I've done a meta-review before, but I need to rant about the press coverage that Passengers is getting, and dammit I have a blog.

This will involve spoilers. Lots of them.

Gizmodo's review of Passengers, for reference.

The plot point at the center of the complaint in that review (and others) is that Chris Pratt's character Jim wakes up Jennifer Lawrence's character Aurora. As the review says, this is a terrible thing to do, and robs her of the future she had planned for herself, and that's the entire point of the movie. It's not like the movie tiptoes around it.

Gizmodo's review says "Sometimes you see it, others you don’t. It gets a big moment, then it’s forgotten." No. No one ever forgets it. The romance plot, before Aurora finds out, is littered with Jim's guilt. They don't talk about it during the action sequences, because that's really not the time for it, but everything else revolves around his decision to wake her up and what that means.

It's possible that the author of the review simply wasn't paying attention - in the next paragraph, he asks "Why are these people taking this trip?" and "Why is anti-gravity swimming even available?" The first of those is addressed, though not in great depth, and the second - it's not, except when gravity fails due to critical system shutdowns, which is, you know, the driving plot of the movie.

Passengers is good sci-fi. It takes human characters, puts them in difficult situations, and imagines what they would do. Humans are social creatures, and while Jim's decision is clearly unethical, it is understandable, and asking the audience to think about that is the point.

The Gizmodo review further says "Waking Aurora up is tantamount to murder." It's true that Aurora says the same thing, but she changes her mind later, and the reviewer doesn't seem to understand that, or why. We're all going to die. Your parents sentenced you to death at the moment of your birth. How we live our lives is what matters, and that's the other main point of the film. It's not like they were trying to hide that either - it's flatly stated more than once, by more than one character (which is impressive, since there are only four characters with appreciable speaking lines). I understand disliking the ending. I can think of a few other ways they could have handled the situation that might have allowed them a different outcome - but I also understand the choice the characters made, to live the life they had in front of them because it was a good enough life to live.

For the objection that Jim's a manipulative asshole - sure. He's also smart, charming, good looking, funny. I've seen people make worse choices. I do wish the filmmakers had had the vision and balls to pull a Clue and film alternate endings. That would have been spectacular.

Lastly, I'm shocked and appalled that none of the reviews I've read have pointed out the obvious - Jennifer Lawrence's character is named Aurora Lane. And she's a reporter. Aurora for Sleeping Beauty, and Lane for Lois Lane. It's so completely obviously referential. Jim even wakes her up from a glass coffin nonconsensually (in the Disney sense, not the fairy tale sense). Then they reverse the glass coffin scene at the end for closure. The writers clearly knew what they were doing here, and I'm ashamed of the movie critics who didn't get it.

Performance: 4/5
Plot: 3.5/5
Production: 5/5
Overall: 3.5/5
Bechdel: Fail (F - I'm not counting holograms)
Mako Mori: Pass - and this is where I have a problem with some other reviewers. Aurora did have her own motivations that didn't involve Jim, and that's the point.