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.

https://youtu.be/Md7qa2HxoU8?t=3m27s

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

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

Passengers

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.


Friday, December 16, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

There are mild spoilers in this review.

I'm going to start my review with a two-part statement that may cause confusion and outrage: I'm a huge Star Wars fan, and none of the movies are very good. The original Star Wars has an important and hallowed place in cinema history, and it's not a very good movie. Empire, the golden child of Star Wars fans, is really pretty decent, but it has its problems. I have a soft spot for Jedi, but Ewoks, man. Ewoks. Force Awakens was enjoyable, but not really good cinema. Also, there were prequels. What I'm saying here is that Star Wars does not have a track record of making good movies.

There is something about Star Wars, though, that makes it great despite this. The grandeur, the wonder, the scope, the imagination, the Force, the bigness and smallness of it - and of course the music - add up to a cultural phenomenon that I deeply love. I have similar thoughts about Potter, but that's a different topic.

All of this introduction exists to give background and context to my one-sentence review of Rogue One: it's a pretty decent Star Wars-themed action film. It's not great cinema, but I was entertained.

As a Star Wars fan, I appreciated the many references to other Star Wars properties, mostly Episode IV. The digital effects that allowed them to insert characters that first hit the screen almost forty years ago without jarring the audience - impressive.

Of course, as a Star Wars fan, I knew how this film needed to end. Rather, I knew the state that the setting needed to be at the end of the film, and therefore the ending was, by definition, predictable. The journey of getting there was fairly well done, though, and I appreciate that the studio had the guts to make a movie with that ending. I suspect that the commentary I'm seeing comparing it to Empire is based in part on similarity in arc.

I do have a number of problems with the film. I was never convinced by the motivations of the main characters. The actors emoted well, and the writers tried very hard to give them depth, but most of it rang hollow to me. The pacing was off; I suspect tightening up the edit by five or ten minutes would have helped a lot. The movie was very dark; I don't mean tonally, I mean it wasn't well-lit, which often made it hard to see what was going on. And, large parts of the plot (mostly everything to do with Saw Gerrera) were forced/borderline nonsensical.

Despite that, I enjoyed this movie. K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) was great, as was Donnie Yen's blind monk. The space battles were fantastically good. The ground combats were also well done, and all of it felt like Star Wars. There's a large extent to which not sucking is a major achievement for a Star Wars movie, and this one passed that test.

Speaking of tests, it passes Bechdel but fails Mako Mori - arguably. The test calls for a female character whose arc is not about supporting a man's story. Jyn's arc is all about her father, from start to finish - but his arc is about her, always, down to the project name. It might be a gray area.

I'd have appreciated more female background characters (though there were some), but it was nice that there wasn't a forced romance between the male and female leads.

Performance: 3/5
Plot: 3/5
Production: 5/5
Overall: 3.5/5
Bechdel: Pass (B)
Mako Mori: Fail


Saturday, December 26, 2015

2015 Year in Review

2015 was a very different year for me than 2014. I saw exactly half as many movies. On average, those movies were a fair amount better than last year, if you ignore Blackhat and Chappie (3.417 vs 2.9, or 3.175 vs 2.9 if those two are included, which is still better).



Whereas last year only 40% of the movies I saw scored higher than 3 overall, this year 55% did. Only 30% of movies were lower than 3, versus last year's 45%.



2015 was once again a good acting year, with only 10% of movies I reviewed earning less than a 3 in Performance (which is the same as 2014). The average increased from 3.2 to 3.45.



I continued to be far more critical of plots than other aspects of movies, though the average did increase from 2.6 to 2.8. The percentage of movies I reviewed earning higher than 3 actually decreased from 35 to 30, though.



2015 was a heck of a year for production values, though. My average increased from 3.2 to 4, with four movies earning a 5 from me.




There was an enormous difference between 2014 and 2015 as far as the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests are concerned. The pass rate for each was 65% this year, versus 37% and 30% respectively in 2014. The majority of movies I saw passed both (55%), whereas last year only 20% did so.



I attempted to break down the Bechdel test by how much a movie passed or failed, but I'm not sure the results are worthwhile. It's just not a very good test, which its creator acknowledges - The Hateful Eight passes it, and no one would say that that movie has a positive treatment of women or anything approaching parity of roles for women. It does show that about half the movies which passed the Bechdel test did so more or less on a technicality, with only a brief conversation to qualify.

I'm thinking that next year I'll try to add a measure - something like percentage of female principle actors, or maybe something related to billing order. Articles related to The Force Awakens noted that movies have a shockingly low percentage or female parts, both in the foreground and background - TFA doesn't have that problem, at least in part because someone bothered to point it out to the people who made it.

I also attempted to divide my scores into Fun and Serious sections so that I wouldn't have to compare them... and then only saw one movie that fit into the Serious section. I probably won't be doing that again.

I currently have 19 movies on the to-see list for 2016, which will appear on the right-hand menu sometime soon. I'm optimistic that it will be a good year.

Here is the final list for 2015:


Fun Movies

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road (4.5)
  2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (4.5)
  3. Avengers: Age of Ultron (4.5)
  4. The Martian (4)
  5. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (4)
  6. Pitch Perfect 2 (4)
  7. Ant-Man (4)
  8. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (4)
  9. Spectre (3.5)
  10. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (3.5)
  11. Jupiter Ascending (3.5)
  12. Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (3)
  13. Jurassic World (3)
  14. The Hateful Eight (3)
  15. Tomorrowland (2.5)
  16. Kingsman: The Secret Service (2)
  17. Insurgent (2)
  18. Chappie (1)
  19. Blackhat (1)


Serious Movies

  1. American Sniper

The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight is a Quentin Tarantino movie. That means it is violent - gratuitously over-the-top violent. It is also offensive - if anyone tracks number of uses of the N-word in a film, this almost certainly broke the record. It is also a work of art. This doesn't make it a good movie, just one that is well filmed.

I had the opportunity to see it in 70mm in the Roadshow cut, which is longer than the general release will be, and has an intermission. I recommend reading the Wikipedia article about 70mm, but the short version is that it's a much larger physical format than standard 35mm film, which makes for a higher quality picture. Tarantino acquired the lenses from 1959's Ben Hur to film this movie, and it definitely has a gorgeous look.

The film is a Western set a number of years after the Civil War. The titular Hateful Eight are trapped in a roadhouse by a blizzard, and large amounts of exposition and violence ensue. The acting is top-notch, as one might expect from Sam Jackson, Kurt Russell, and Tim Roth. The script is also expertly crafted, with a superbly done Mystery element. Whether you enjoy the final product, though, depends on your tolerance for gore, racism, misogyny, torture, and murder.

This is not a movie with heroes. These are the Hateful Eight, and none of them are good guys. Still, there's a good chance that if you enjoyed Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, you'll like this movie. It's not particularly more offensive than they are, and is extraordinarily well-made.

My overall scores are not an average of Performance, Plot, and Production - they are a measure of how much I enjoy a film. For a movie like this, it's somewhat hard to say how much I enjoyed it. It's a stunning work of cinematic art which is utterly devoid of positive moral qualities. So I'm going to kinda average that out to a 3.

Performance: 4.5/5
Plot: 4.5/5
Production: 5/5
Overall: 3/5
Bechdel: Pass (B)
Mako Mori: Fail
What are these?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Force Awakens update

I've written a spoiler version of the review, but have not posted it on the front page, for obvious reasons. I have added a link to it at the bottom of the spoiler-free review, which should be immediately below this post.