Friday, January 19, 2018

I am Dragon

Also known as He's a Dragon or its original Russian title On - drakon, this little gem is a Russian fairytale about a princess named Mira who is kidnapped by a dragon on her wedding day. On the dragon's island, she meets a young man called Arman who tries to protect her from the dragon. But Mira soon discovers that Arman and the dragon are one and the same being.

And that certainly complicates the situation.

When the dragon takes over, Arman is trapped inside, and cannot control the dragon's murderous actions, but as a man he wants to help Mira escape. So while the two wait for Igor, Mira's fiancé, to be led to the island by Mira's love for him, Mira teaches Arman how to live like a human, in the hope that he can learn to control the beast inside him. It's not really a spoiler to say that the two grow close and begin to develop feelings for each other. This is a fairytale after all, and more or less follows the plot structure of Beauty and the Beast.

What makes this story different is... practically everything else. I hardly even know where to begin. Well, first, the movie is Russian, so there's an overall unusual, non-mainstream tone over the whole thing. It feels exotic. The script is poetic in a non-uppity way, and some of the lines actually took my breath way. Just simple lines of dialogue. At the beginning of the movie someone says, "They had tears where their eyes should have been, and fear where their hearts should have been..." and something about the simple beauty of that stunned me. The script also hits the romance in a similar straightforward fashion. And it gives plenty of wit, remembering to have fun too.

Also there's great music. Especially the song that is sung that summons the dragon.

The next thing to leave an impression on me was the visual. This movie is top to bottom one of the most consistently gorgeous films I've ever seen. It achieves this by starting out with striking visuals in sets, locations, costumes, and even casting. The snowy lake-town Mira is from is full of black white and red contrast. Then Arman's island is actually the massive skeleton of an ancient dragon. The jaw juts up into the air as a tower, full of rooms inside his head. I have never seen anything like it; yet, it's so simple, like the most natural thing ever. I could stare at it for hours even without a plot going on around it.

And then everything is shot with wonderful attention to detail. Lovely framing, tight focusing, immaculate use of color; everything in the movie is so beautiful, yet the cinematography puts effort into enhancing it all even further. Some of the shots they got in there knocked my socks off. Slow motion is used in excess, and that's usually something that bothers me, but here it did such a nice job elevating the mood of the scenes that used it, I hardly even noticed. And clearly, a ton of effort and care was put into the creation of the dragon and the fantasy world, because the effects are great throughout.

Doesn't this make you want to die of happiness because it's so impossibly beautiful??

Then comes character. At the beginning of the film, Mira comes across as a petty little child, bordering on a brat, and when she's first kidnapped she starts getting whiny in a way I thought was going to irritate me for the rest of the movie. But, she actually changes. Actually. Really. Changes. At one point she tells Arman that she can be very annoying, and the self awareness of that turned the tide. From then she quickly develops into a thoroughly likable heroine, and I was impressed at how she seems to physically mature as well. Arman is a pretty classic Romance love interest: handsome, grumpy, kind, dangerous, tragic past. He hits all the checkpoints. But he never becomes too cliché or boring. A classic trope done well.

The romance in this movie is so sweet. I've always been wary of the romance genre because it steers so easily into sentimental cheesiness, and even easier into inappropriateness. I went into it blind of its content level and was surprised at how family-friendly it was. It would get a PG-13, and that only due to an inconvenience where Arman's clothes burn off every time he turns into the dragon. Nothing we weren't subjected to in Wonder Woman. But back to the point: That this movie is really, really sweet. It sounds so weird to say that because if I'd heard that before watching this, it might have made me consider not watching. "Sweet" in a romance films equals "sappy and childish and cringe-worthy" right? Well, no.

It's just sweet like... romantic. Actually romantic.

Like with the rest of the film, its romance is done simply, and with honesty. It might not hit the nail square on the head with its message on love, but it means every word of it, and there's something rare and appealing to that kind of openness. And one last thing that might seem random, but I totally loved: You know how in movies girls will cut their hair with kitchen scissors and in the next scene it looks styled and fantastic? Well in this, Mira cuts her own hair and then spends the rest of the movie with a choppy, lopsided haircut. They made sure it was still stylish and pretty of course, but in a convincingly accidental way. I was so impressed.

I am Dragon is currently stream-able on Amazon, and I recommend it as an ideal fairytale in almost every way. Beautiful, fantastic locations, characters that you care for and want to see succeed, a familiar but unique plot full of bold and memorable imagery, sweeping romance, musings on true love, and, most importantly, princesses and dragons. A true gem indeed.

Friday, January 12, 2018



In spite of Dan Stevens and a very memorable fantasy premise, Colossal for me was nothing more than a colossal waste of time.

Sorry, but they walked into that one.

Although, I do get to write a review about it, so, waste of time maybe, but I can't say I regret watching it. It's about , who's a party girl, and a drunk, out-of control loser. The movie's fantasy element is a parable for what it's like to be out of control with an addiction. Because of some flimsy magical happenstance, whenever Anne -- Gloria -- walks through a specific playground at exactly 8:05 AM, a giant Godzilla-like monster appears in Seoul, South Korea, and mimics her movements.

From the moment I saw the trailer I wondered about the logistics of the premise. I was left unsatisfied.

When her boyfriend () can't stand her lazy drunken shenanigans any longer and kicks her out, she goes to her hometown, and starts working at her childhood friend's bar. Yes, wonderful place for an alcoholic to hang out. His name is Owen and he's played by . She chances to walk through this specific playground at the right time several times, is shocked along with the rest of the world at the appearance of the monster, and eventually discovers that the monster is her -- because of a tick where she scratches her head in an obvious and exaggerated manner. Then she gets drunk and shows off her odd party trick to her new buddies ( and ) and Owen, accidentally trips, falls, and kills lots of South Koreans.

But don't worry, it gets better. Owen, trying to catch her, goes into the playground too, and he also has something materialize in Seoul and copy his movements -- a giant robot. Awesome. Now he's kinda excited about his newfound power like Gloria was, but for her there's a bit of a damper because she realized for the first time that her boyfriend was right. She's out of control. She's literally killed people. The parallel between her heightened situation and real-life addiction is obvious. She vows never to let her monster materialize again, and seems to be on the road to recovery, but then things escalate beyond even her control.

*fantasy intensifies*

I suppose this part is meant to be the metaphor for how your addiction can begin to control you. Owen now gets drunk and starts goofing off in the playground. For some reason she feels responsible for this and is quick to break her vow in order to stand up to him. He apologizes, but later is drunk again and back at it, and before you know it, reaches full villain scale when he threatens innocent lives to make her stay working for him. When she doesn't take him seriously enough he makes good on the threat in one of the most weirdly dark and unpleasant scenes I've witnessed in a movie. As he stomps on the wood chips, she's laying on the ground inches from him reaching out and screaming, yet never moves to physically stop him. We're supposed to understand that she can't, but it simply doesn't make sense.

After that the allegory falls apart, because to solve the problem she goes to Seoul, making her monster appear at the playground, picks Owen up, and hurls him across the state, killing him. But it's okay, because he called her a b**** before she decided to do it. What's the takeaway from the ending? I have no clue. There's an obvious point of girl-power, because she never gets any help from her friends or the police, and she ends up alone but "happy." But after thinking about it for a few days, the only lesson I can see concerning addiction is that it seems to say that once you've solved you own problems, it's totally okay for you to kill people with the same problems if they don't figure it out like you did.

Nice Job. Let's hope no one takes that attitude to heart.

I am %1000 sure that that is not what the movie makers meant the point to be, but if there's a more reasonable one, I completely missed it. I think Owen is always meant to be an extension of a sort of Gloria's problem, since story-wise her problem isn't truly fixed until she's rid of him, but if that's the case I don't get what killing him is a metaphor for. (If you have any insights I'd welcome a discussion.)

One definite, but probably unintentional lesson is that you should never let, or go to others for help. Dan Stevens goes to her aid, but only comes across as needy and wishy-washy because he kicks her out and then gets jealous of her for moving on. Then there's Austin Stowell's character, who was present on the sidelines for many of her fights with Owen to get him out of the playground. This guy totally could have stepped in and helped her, but in the movie's eyes it isn't even a possibility. He's even on her side. But he just stands there. It doesn't make sense.

The head-scratching bit irked me to no end because of how played up it was.

I don't care for Anne Hathaway, and I don't think she did a particularly good job, but I don't blame her for my inability to sympathize with her character. Gloria comes across surprisingly unsympathetic in spite of what happens to and because of her. The culprit is, I believe, the movie's insincere tone. Jason Sudeikis did do an interesting job turning into a disturbing villain, but the transition was jarring in a way that doesn't sit right. The movie's tonal shifts are all jarring, though you can see attempts at dark comedy throughout. Instead it comes across as irreverently dark, milking the disturbing moments for shocking drama, then kicking back and flippantly expecting us to laugh at it all, which is the last thing I felt like doing.

It's a fantasy movie, but tries to ground itself in reality, drawing clear parallels to real-life problems, but the grounding doesn't take. The story slowly floats further and further away from reality until by then end it cops out with a falsely empowering ending, and never finishes it's thought on addiction, the reason the story existed in the first place. I think they simplified the issue far too much, and instead of letting the story drive through its natural path to a conclusion, it was forced to go the way they wanted. Each forced turn pushed the movie further and further into its own fantasy land.

"Moral of the story? Oh, idk.... addiction is... um, what were we talking about?"

I don't have much experience with this kind of thing in real-life, but I think they ignored the most overarching truth -- that if you need help you don't have to face your problems alone -- merely so they could scrounge up an inspiring and empowering ending for their amazingly dis-likable heroine. The way I see it, Colossal never moves past the stage she was at in the very beginning; in denial that it has a problem in the first place. It just stomps around in wild destruction, shouting its incoherent message into a fantastical, meaningless void.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Upcoming Movie Roundup - January

In December as I expected I only saw one movie -- though I did see it twice -- The Last Jedi. I have mixed feelings about it. It was half magnificent and half a waste of time and characters. But my overall impression is decidedly positive. Check out my review here!

This month has one absolute and long-anticipated must-see, and a small handful that I'll be keeping an eye on. Maybe the slow month will give me an opportunity to catch up on 2017 movies I missed!

Happy 2018 everyone! I hope you all had a great year, and will have an even better one this year! What are you looking forward to in this first movie month of 2018?

The Beyond
Jan 9th; NR
This month in Indie Scifi Films that I'll Most Likely Never Get Around to Watching if I'm Being Realistic: This. This one's a bit more cerebral than most indie scifis I see floating around, but it's certainly intriguing, and the trailer even makes it look visually impressive for a lower-budget production too. So I'm going to leave it here for my future self to find and remember to search for on streaming sites.

The Commuter
Jan 12th; PG-13
Non-Stop wasn't by any means a great movie, but it was an enjoyable one-time watch, so maybe this one will be too. Liam Neeson always gives movies a certain level of appeal. This one looks like a decent popcorn-muncher that probably has a fun twist and a handful of plot holes. If it doesn't get terrible reviews, I'll probably watch it sometime, but not in theaters.

12 Strong
Jan 19th; R
I'm not the biggest fan of either based-on-true-story movies, or war movies, but this may be able to overcome both those things. It definitely seems like the kind of true story that is worth telling, with the interesting and unusual element of the soldiers using horses, and it's not a tragedy which is fantastic. Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, and Michael Pena are three significant pluses too. The only question is whether it's a well-made film, and that I can't exactly tell from the trailer, but I would certainly hope so!

The Maze Runner: The Death Cure
Jan 26th; NR (expect a PG-13)
FINALLY. Not to sound like I don't take reviewing movies seriously, but I don't care if this movie is good or not. I'm going to enjoy the heck out of it no matter what. I've waited too long to do anything else. Still, chances are it'll be an incredibly decent movie -- or at the very least not be a disaster in comparison to the previous movies of the series, unlike The Hunger Games and Divergent turned out to be. For one thing they didn't try to milk more money by making the end two parts. Also I really appreciate that Wes Ball has stuck around to direct all three films. It shows promising dedication. I'm a fan of the books, but not so much that I'll be mad at changes. I already know I like the characters, the cast, and the story. Very much looking forward to the finale!

Please Stand By
Jan 26th; PG-13
Alice Eve, who was in an actual Star Trek movie, is now in a movie about a Star Trek fan! Dakota Fanning leads, and Toni Collette is always a huge plus to movies. The trailer reminds me of The Way Way Back with its tone and light indie style that will probably have something deeper going on along with the unusual adventure. It's unlikely that it even close to as much as I love The Way Way Back, but it's definitely worth keeping an eye on, I think.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi


Not surprisingly, this second film in the continuing Star Wars franchise is much more complicated than the first. Mirroring Episode V as most expected and some feared, Episode VIII sees Rey () spend time alone on a deserted planet with a grumpy old Jedi Master () learning the ways of the force, while her allies face dire threat from The First Order. Leia (), Poe (), Finn (), newcomer Rose (), and BB-8 must find a way to save The Resistance from being blown out of the sky as General Hux () tracks them through space and they slowly run out of fuel. Meanwhile Kylo Ren (), berated by Supreme Leader Snoke () and connected to Rey via random Force-style Skype calls is going through an existential crisis. Will he rejoin the Light side? Or will Rey join the Dark?

We can only guess -- pretty accurate guesses actually if we use Ep 5 as a blueprint.

The parallels between this and The Empire Strikes Back are pretty clear, though generalized, and while it all ends up in the place you'd imagine, it often takes the unexpected path in getting there. In fact I'm sure that while this was being written unexpected turns were eagerly sought. Everything we had to think about for the past two years was dealt with in a way that no one would see coming. Like Luke tossing his lightsaber over a cliff after Rey gives it to him. Everyone speculated wildly over who Rey's parents were -- so the reveal is that they were nobody. I have no strong opinions on plot direction, but doing the unexpected so determinedly did create difficulty at times.

Taking a clearer, more straightforward path, for example, might have helped what I thought was the film's biggest trip-up: the middle section. About halfway through the movie I looked up and realized nothing had happened for at least a half-hour. Rey was still on the planet with Luke who was still refusing to train her. Poe was still trying to save the day "the wrong way" and Finn and Rose were wasting time on his mission that wound up being totally and completely moot. Seriously, if they'd stayed on the ship and followed orders the exact same outcome would have happened. I like to see characters fail, but they need to do it in a way that affects the plot.

"This is not going to go the way you think." No, it's just going to get there the most roundabout way possible.

Poe was my favorite character in The Force Awakens so I was excited at the prospect of him doing more this time around. Disappointingly, all he did was almost mess things up and then get taught a lesson like he was a child. He didn't learn anything, he just got told it. On one hand, at least they tried to give him an arc, on the other, I maybe would've preferred if they hadn't. Most of the other characters were lacking in various degrees also, but I had less investment and expectation with them. Rey does a few interesting things, and her and Kylo's dynamic was good. Luke is cooler than he ever was in the Original Trilogy, so that was nice. He makes a great grumpy teacher, and I would've watched a whole movie of him training Rey -- if only he had actually trained her any!

Honestly Kylo Ren is the best. I knew from the moment he first removed his helmet in TFA that he had a long journey ahead of him, and boy, is it rich and satisfying. Everything he does feels natural, and the way it was intended -- and still he goes in unexpected and exciting directions. All the best of the film is centered on him. He's involved in the most compelling drama, and a part of two absolutely wicked fight scenes. Hux looked fantastic with those dark circles under his eyes. He was undermined a bit, but made himself more useful than Finn and Rose did. They were really floundering trying to give Finn something to do, poor guy, and basically wasted him. Snoke in person was underwhelming, but he served his purpose.

I liked his scar. And everything else.

We all expected this to mirror The Empire Strikes Back. I was actually excited at the prospect. I'm not sure if Empire is my favorite Star Wars film, but it's certainly my favorite tonally. It's cold and harsh on Hoth, then grimy on Dagobah, then bright reversed into dark on Bespin, and ends with a duel shot in shadow, one character losing and hand and another captured by the enemy. I guess I should have known these were the elements that wouldn't end up being copied. But Empire is "dark" and I think that was tried here. At its best it gets to be intense, and shot with breath-taking, edgy beauty -- but the dire situations never have the full... dark... force. They pointedly make the good guys fail, but in the end they've still won -- not just narrowly escaped after a defeat.

Very few things that happen have a significant impact on the story. Rey is still good and Kylo is still evil. Luke is dead after contributing a few epic scenes to the narrative. Everyone is in regroup-mode on the Falcon with no significant losses or urgent tasks at hand. Poe and Rey finally said hi to each other, and that made me happier than anything else this movie did. I only wanted to see one thing happen, and that was it. But I digress. No characters were permanently changed, except Kylo. He's the one thing that happened here. Snoke is dead, and I'm wondering where that will lead Kylo next. The Resistance is smaller now, but will probably grow again when their allies come along in the next movie, and their location has changed, but that's not significant either.

Sorry Finn -- you were great before, but pretty insignificant here. Even this fight was insignificant.

The Last Jedi has the classic middle-movie syndrome, where there's too little to do and too much time to do it in, no solid starting place and no solid ending place. did do a good job making it feel like a complete movie at least, and it sure was beautiful. That one moment when the ship light-speeds through the destroyer... man. He was right for the job for that alone. I also appreciated that he spent less time doing fan-service, and more time trying out new directions. I wish he had been able to commit to one of those directions. It felt like he was pushing the envelope out, but then kept bringing it back in. I would like to say that was because of the constraints of the studio, but I can't know for sure. I know that I like him as a director, and when I noticed his style here it seemed like a good thing. But all his movies so far have had flaws, and this one's no different.

My overall impression of the movie is positive. I half expected the shortcomings, so they didn't much affect my enjoyment, and there are some fantastic moments that will warrant sitting through the slow bits to see again. I imagine it could've got to the same end in a better -- and certainly faster -- way, but it's not a terribly offensive fault. Really, it's a classic fault of franchise films of this type; stories by committee and influence of expectations. This one tries hard to subvert expectations, but can only manage it within details. In the big picture it's still the same; everything's expected, and nothing is new.

The Poe-Poe is coming. Oh no!

There are very few ways to truly fail a Star Wars film. Production is top of the top-notch, cinematography is strikingly gorgeous, the scifi world is rich and detailed, the good vs. evil themes are die-hard classics, and there's no tiring of light-saber battles and space-ship flying, and out-of-this-world adventure. Not the best Star Wars installment, which is expected, nor even the best it could have been, which is unfortunate -- but Star Wars is a low-risk franchise with a strong safety net. The Last Jedi produces a few duds, but it only hurts itself in the process, and in the end balances it out with a few exceptionally solid hits. And isn't that how The Force works?

Friday, December 8, 2017

Stranger Things - Season 2


After a first season that unexpectedly blew up the entertainment world, The Duffer Brothers returned with Stranger Things 2. But they failed in recreating the easy retro wonder and chilling suspense of their original masterpiece, and instead the sequel isn't much more than a cheap imitation of their previous work.

Give me this look if you must, but just know I'm giving it right back.

It watches a like a big-budget stroll down memory lane. The cast returns as tour guides, pointing out dim reflections of season 1, winking and saying, "Remember that? That was pretty magnificent, right? Right?" Yep, this show used to be magnificent, but now it's a jumbled pile of fan service via self-reference and obtrusive Easter Eggs. Before, it was a labor of love. Now, it's a meme. It's Funko Pop Culture, and, and Mom Steve™. They've lost sight of the art, and spent all their efforts appeasing the masses of fans with whatever it was they squealed over before. And it's the same, but MORE! so fans squeal again, but the soul is gone. The Demogorgon got it, probably.

I specifically recall the Duffers promising this wouldn't happen. "We'll write until the story is over, not stretch it out," they said. Well if the story isn't stretched out right now, I need to quit reviewing things, because I know nothing. The first four episodes are about 5% plot, and 95% fan service. Every introduction of a returning character I half expected to be accompanied by an applause track, like fans cheering whenever Kramer burst onto the Seinfeld set. Even Carol gets one of those moments, and then is never shown again. She, Tommy, Powell, and Callahan are insultingly useless and unused, so why are they back in the first place?

They did good keeping Hopper the same I guess, but he loses interest.

Answer: Fan service. This season values fan service over everything, to a level I've never seen before, not in Star Wars or Marvel movies -- or even Sherlock. It's almost like the same people didn't write it at all, but just took the fluffiest fan-fiction they could find, filmed it, and served it up. Well, this fan feels like she's been served -- a pile of rotting table scraps. Easter Eggs might be yummy in the moment, but they're no replacement for substance in entertainment. As Mike would say, we're not dogs; and we deserve to be respected and challenged as intelligent viewers. I will always question why things happen the way they do, especially in a sequel, and I want to find a reason that exists in the narrative of the story, rather than, "Uh, the fans would love it duh!"

Obviously, I'm not a fan of fan service. Having Easter Eggs constantly chucked at my head is unpleasant and distracting. But I do understand the appeal in theory. I just don't understand how anyone could think this stuff is acceptable as character or plot development -- fans or creators. Dustin was a fan-favorite, so now he's got a mom and a cat, and a pet baby Demogorgon (Haha, remember when he was the reasonable one?) and he gets scenes wholly devoted to "comedy" and swearing a lot. No character direction or plot-developing to be seen. But even worse, his character is changed to allow for it.

*rant intensifies*

And fans were upset with Nancy for picking clutch-good-guy Steve over Jonathan last time, so that gets "fixed." I hate this most because they actually subvert season one events to make it happen. No, she didn't wait a month before taking Steve back. She just didn't. They tried to twist it into Jonathan's fault not Nancy's choice, and I call bull on that. The end of their arcs is the place for official romance (if it should happen at all) when they're both the best versions of themselves. It's so cheap to do it now. Nancy's a worse person than she ever was in season 1. And Jonathan is such a misunderstood loner that even the writers don't know what to do with him. They don't fit anymore -- their unexpected connection is gone -- but details like that won't stop the fan-pleasing train!

Anyway Steve's nice now, so he doesn't deserve to be saddled with Nancy either. Instead he's saddled with leading the plot line created for all the useless characters to populate. Like Dustin and Lucas and the new girl Max, and her brother Billy. I really don't get the point of Billy. They apply 80's music to him like he's cool, but we're supposed to hate him, right? All but forgotten are Joyce and Mike. I missed Mike being the main character dearly, but at least his character wasn't ruined. His reunion with El lasted about two seconds though, which is hands down the stupidest thing this show does, out of a plethora of spectacularly stupid things. Sean Astin's Bob is the new Barb, and surprisingly likable, though his overdone, manipulative sucker-punch wasn't nearly as effective as Barb's, in spite of a longer set up.

The Steve/Dustin stuff had charm of course. It was downright cute at times. But totally empty, like everything else.

The worst victim is Mrs. Wheeler: from strict, sensible mom to flustered and dewy-eyed over a 17-year-old boy in two seconds flat, which was ten times creepier than those stupid Demodogs. Ugh. Demodogs. If I could erase one thing it would be them. It took a whole year for them to go from large slug to large slug, then three days to go from large slug to large dog. What? And the Demogorgon rules are completely changed! They're attracted to blood not raw meat, and they hunt alone. By the end there's so many they're not even remotely scary anymore. So animated too, and why oh why do they suddenly look like dogs?

Everything is CGI-ed into oblivion. The scope is so wide it loses focus, and then becomes distracted by the increased budget. Sets that used to be practical -- like the Upside Down -- are now CGI, and the effects aren't even good. They're obviously fake. Some effects in season one were fake-looking too, but used carefully and sparingly, for best possible results. The underground tunnels were mostly practical, and worked the best. The Upside Down inside the school was offensively bad. Overall, the locations just don't feel real anymore, and it kills the nostalgia. Everything lost the organic, non-pop-cultured retro feel. And it's intentional, moment by beautiful moment pacing is gone too.

The big mistake that makes room for little mistakes is that the plot was stretched far too thin.

I think I can see where the story was meant to go though -- before it was distracted by its own popularity. And it gets there in the end, more or less; battered, bruised, and all but destroyed, but technically intact. This base plot line is The Shadow Monster, and Will being infected and controlled by it, then, because he's smart, signaling the way to defeat it. Then El is the only one able to complete the task. El and Will were always the most important characters, so it makes sense that they would be done right. Will is basically the main character now, and shines impressively. He, and the plot he's the center of, spurs all things actually scary, mysterious or strange this season succeeds in.

El almost fails, because she isn't needed until the end, and they take their sweet time getting to her important development. Her relationship with Hopper was bursting with potential, but reduced to the angst-y rebellious teenager and overly-protective father cliche without reasonable explanation. Finally in episode 7 she gets all her good development in a rush. Not a great idea since she's the most fascinating character, and deserves gradual development in a constant spotlight, but at least it was true to her character. She runs away to explore her dark side, but her love for her friends and the truths she learned from them keeps her from falling away, and brings her back, more powerful than ever.

If you think episode 7 should be skipped, I don't know how else to put this: you're WRONG.

Straying from the formula and from Hawkins in episode 7 was the one risk the Duffers took, and for some reason it's the only criticism they're getting from the squealing fans. But El's development there, along with the main Shadow Monster plot line are the only things to save the show from total disaster. It's short and simplified, but on a base level, is all good stuff, and when it's being actively implemented, the show is genuinely good. Not quite incredible or mind-blowing, but good. And whenever characters touch it, they thrive again -- briefly, but without fail. Away from it, the directionless, bloated mess drags them down.

I could go on for twice as long, but suffice to say I was disappointed. The show copies its old self with a cut-and-paste method, and the degraded quality shows painfully. In fleeting moments it matches up and becomes glorious again, but then, like one of Will's visions, it vanishes away. It isn't terrible, granted. But I'm struggling to find anything worthwhile in it that isn't done better in season 1. It's not even scary. The characters are betrayed and forced to be stereotypes. The mood is dishonest, and the emotion clouded with insincere self-reference. The writing and production has dwindled away from immaculate to forgettable and nonsensical.

This photo reflects my disappointment.

Call me a snob if you must, but this is Stranger Things! It used to be jaw-dropping; a gorgeous medley of fear, charm, mystery, and wonder, created with impressive care and devotion. It paid homage to classic films, and rebuilt them into a new, original creature. That tiny little 80's scifi adventure has affected big-budget blockbusters. It has boldly proved that passionate, quality entertainment is still the best commodity. A mere year later, it fails to live up to its own influential standard. It barely even lives up to its title.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Upcoming Movie Roundup - December

I had a very productive Movie-November, watching Thor: Ragnarok, which was entertaining but far too shallow and irreverent (review here). Then Murder on the Orient Express, which was a lovely and well-performed production (review here). And then Justice League which wasn't the worst movie ever but sure did feel like it after all that promise and hype (review here).

Then I caught up on some other 2017 movies I missed in theaters -- Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which was better than expected and the most scifi fun I've had all year (review here); and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, which was worse than expected with low expectations, and really quite sad. I doubt I'll get around to reviewing it.

Also I forgot to mention it in November, but I also watched Netflix's Punisher, and it was fantastic. Frank Castle in all his jarringly violent glory. I just finished it last night, and it may be the most thoroughly great thing Marvel-Netflix has done. Review on that probably coming soon!

December looks to be slowing down a bit, mainly because I don't have much interest for Oscar-grab season. There's only one must-see for me -- Star Wars, of course, but plenty of others to keep a close eye on too. Are you excited for Star Wars 8? And is there anything else on your radar this month?

The Shape of Water
Dec 1st(limited); R
Sally Hawkins is great, Michael Shannon is great, Guillermo Del Toro is great, and his style of fantasy is great. The trailer is beautiful and unusual, and it looks like the kind of dark and serious fantasy I'd probably love. I won't be seeing it in theaters, but probably will someday. And reviews are saying it's great, so whenever I do see it, it will be with high expectations.

November Criminals
Dec 8th(limited); PG-13
Oh, I thought that after Baby Driver, Ansel Elgort would stick to grown-up movies. This movie screams teen movie that wants to be grown up so that's kinda awkward. It looks like it deals with serious issues, but then teen movies deal with serious issues they rarely do a good job. Based on a YA novel of the same name, which isn't necessarily a bad thing since novels are more likely to have cohesive plots than movies generally, so there is that. Still, I doubt this will be anywhere as good as it apparently wants to be. Also, it has the word "November" in it's title, yet is coming out in December...?

Bullet Head
Dec 8th(limited); R
Haha, this looks like the kind of movie I'd enjoy no matter how bad it is. Adrien Brody is always a plus. And there's also Antonio Banderas and John Malkovich... and some kind of monster that looks like a large zombie dog or something. Nice.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Dec 15th; PG-13
(Why no "Episode VIII" in the title??) Who needs any other movies this month -- we have Star Wars!! I'm very excited for this of course but also a bit nervous. I think because after Ep 7 we now have expectations about this trilogy so the stakes have been raised. From the beginning I was most excited at the prospect of Ep 8, because I expected it would take a darker turn like Ep 5 did (though hopefully it will be less similar plot-wise than 7 was to 4) and because I have loved all of Rian Johnson's movie's so far. He has excellent storytelling instincts I think, and always puts emotional umph into his films, while still making them super enjoyable and entertaining. But directors like him have been stifled by big studios before. Star Wars is only part his baby now, and he can't possibly have full control. But it may very well work out perfectly, so here's to that! The trailer looks gorgeous and intriguing... all the great new characters are here... the hype is hyping... I'm ready!

Beyond Skyline
Dec 15th(limited); R
This month's obligatory non-mainstream scifi movie apparently is this -- starring Frank Grillo. Apparently a sequel, or just set in the same universe as another movie I guess. It actually looks like a bigger film than most I mention, with some creative and well-animated aliens. Plus Frank Grillo does the tough-guy action hero very well. It probably won't be great, but it does look like pretty solid entertainment, and not the sort of thing that only a scifi-obsessed person would be interested to see. However, it is hard for me to tell, because I'm definitely scifi-obsessed.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Dec 20th; PG-13
And this is basically the same idea as the above movie: Probably some solid entertainment, and not much more. The only difference is that this is a big mainstream release, which will make all its shortcomings all the more disappointing. I do like the idea -- how they updated it -- but beyond that, it doesn't promise to be much like the Jumanji we know, or very worthwhile on the whole. The Rock, Karen Gillan, Jack Black and Kevin Hart star.

The Greatest Showman
Dec 20th; PG
More light entertainment, but I guess it's more appropriate here, being a musical loosely based on the life of P.T. Barnum, who was... a showman. In the movie, Hugh Jackman plays him, and creates a circus, and it all looks very razzle-dazzle. He's got a supporting cast of Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, and Rebecca Ferguson, and some original songs. If nothing else, it is sure to be entertaining show.

All the Money in the World
Dec 22nd, R
When I went to see Murder on the Orient Express, they played the trailer that had Kevin Spacey in it. This trailer was published two days ago... and now it's Christopher Plummer. I'm kinda wondering why Spacey was cast in the first place, because they had to use makeup to make him look old. Anyway, most of my interest in this movie is because of the last-minute tossing out and replacing, but ignoring that, the movie looks like a good movie. How much of a good movie, I don't know, but I doubt the change-up could have seriously effected the quality. It's not exactly the sort of movie I'd be eager to see unless it has a happy ending, but I certainly am curious. Michelle Williams stars, with Mark Wahlberg.

The Post
Dec 22nd(limited); PG-13
And what would December be without an Oscar-grab movie? Sure, others might also be Oscar-grabs, but this movie is literally nothing else. It ticks the right political boxes, teams up Meryl Streep with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, and is so try-hard it's making me uncomfortable for it. I like Spielberg, but boy, not like this. I'll wait for Ready Player One.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


I wish this was a foreign language film.

More on that in a second. When this movie was coming out, I not-so-secretly hoped it would be a surprise hit, and when it wasn't, I begrudgingly skipped it in theaters. Fast forward four months -- it only needed to be worth the $5 rental on Amazon, and as a visually spectacular space adventure it was every bit as great as it needed to be. It was fun. It was different. It was colorful, and inventive, and oh-so-very scifi. And it was dragged down by its distractingly bad script -- competing with those spectacular visuals, but in a tragic way.

Based on a French comic book series; adapted and directed by in an operatic The Fifth Element tone + Avatar-level visuals. 

So while I was casually bemoaning the jarring disconnect between Valerian's script and Valerian's literally-everything-else, it occurred to me that the movie could have been a well-rounded and spectacular experience if only I didn't understand what the characters were saying -- like in Gåten Ragnarok, a Norwegian adventure flick I watched once sans subtitles. Done on a whim, it turned out to be a fascinating experiment, to see what I assume is a fairly basic adventure plot stripped of its clarity. The extra layer of ambiguity created the appearance of depth. I assume I missed a lot, but I understood it more than I expected I would, on a subtle, instinctual level.

If Valerian had been in French, and if I had watched it without the subtitles, the characters would have appeared to be deeper (at the cost of understanding what little development they do have) and the plot wouldn't have been handed out on a silver platter, but it still would have been a perfectly serviceable flick. The biggest thing I figure I wouldn't have understood is that Valerian is waiting the whole movie for Laureline to answer his marriage proposal. And that would still work since their romantic will-they-won't-they tension is obvious. Even the strangest of plot events are understandable without the exposition applied to them.

Supporting cast includes Ethan Hawke (as you can see) Clive Owen, and Rihanna. Rihanna is the only memorable one.

Like, the parallel dimension that is only visible through special goggles, or Valerian needing to find a shape-shifting alien, or Laureline sticking her head in a magical jellyfish to psychically divine Valerian's location. Even the Pearl Princess' spirit being inside Valerian comes across visually eventually. They are presented on screen in a very comprehensible way, and the dialogue explaining them only gives a name to the scifi craziness. The script is almost exclusively used for explaining things -- mostly way before an explanation is wanted. Though occasionally subtle wit plays off the dialogue, like when Laureline is advised to change out of her bikini for the mission, and shows up wearing a completely different bikini. Details like that would have been lost. They're charming moments, but in the vast minority overall.

There were whole scenes dedicated to redundant exposition, some featuring characters we never get to know at all. The ship's computer lady's sole function was to explain things to the audience. We see the Pearl Princess die the film's second prologue, and then the Pearl Emperor retells the story again later. At that point, I'm overfed with the info and getting bored. The movie needs to show it all happen because it's a hyper visual movie, and never realizes that it's telling everything too, taking up valuable dialogue time with nothingness, and devaluing the story. The veil of ambiguity that a language barrier would provide would at that point actually enhance the experience. Instead of being told what's going on and then watching it play out, it'd be a mystery; in invitation to be engaged in the story.

Pretty butterfly...

In many ways it would've helped with Valerian and Laureline's characters too. Both are underdeveloped, but also possess unique details about them that come through visually. That is to say, they would be so much more interesting if they stopped opening their mouths and speaking such dry, lifeless and/or useless words. I love how they use teamwork so casually, doing things in sync or handing off objects without having to look. I don't care for , but man, if she isn't pretty good in this. Weirdly, Laureline is a better character than Valerian, even though he gets the movie's solid-if-simple theme as a character arc. I'm giving the benefit of doubt and assuming he underplayed on purpose. The borderline deadpan thing works for him though, and I think he only succeeds in losing interest to his co-star because Valerian spends a certain amount of time invisible, or shape-shifted, or just not doing anything. The camera is a big fan of Laureline's, and she gets more to do.

Both, also, are unconventional, and I love seeing unconventional characters played by unexpected (and arguably miscast) actors leading films like this. It doesn't play by the regular action blockbuster rules, and that is always refreshing. It also totally embraces the cliches and tropes of action and scifi flicks of ye olden days. That timer stops at 1 second left with such aplomb you almost don't even notice the cliche. And the "love conquers all" theme is so cheesy, yet so unapologetic. And seriously, that opening to David Bowie's Space Oddity -- there are few quicker routes into the heart of a fan of science fiction than a sequence like that.

*Slowly realizes that I really really like this movie*

If you were to remake the movie shot-for-shot, and only change the spoken words, it could have been worlds better. Planets better. Like HUNDREDS of planets better. Probably not thousands. Let's not blow things out of proportion here. I mean honestly, even with the drag-chute of a script, the movie is not bad, and the bad script adds to the ambiance in its own way. The characters do get arcs, the plot does makes sense (which is a pretty impressive feat considering how wacky this world is), and everything that is done visually truly is spectacular. It's amazingly creative, and does the adventure thing wonderfully well, reminding me of the old, classic style of scifi adventures. It takes a gazillion pointless rabbit trails, but then the rabbit trails wind up being the best parts. The lack of convention is part of the charm.

And anyway, the scifi is so gleeful and interesting, you almost don't need the characters to be any more compelling, or the plot to be any more complex -- you don't want to distract from what you have, and what I'm sure the main point of the movie is. (To be fun and spectacular!) But as I've learned, simple plots can be engaging if they aren't over-explained, and character depth is easy to imply with strategic use of subtlety and some talented actors. Valerian is no slouch, but its script certainly leaves lots to be desired. Normally when a script lacks, the obvious solution is to add more to it, but in this case, I think a little discarding might've been a handier option.

Sometimes less is more, and sometimes more is more. This movie has the "more is more" part down in spades.

So yeah, I wish it was a foreign language movie so I could watch it without subtitles -- kinda. At this point I've seen it twice and I'm already getting used to the script's dull moments of redundant explanation, and am appreciating what character we do get, and all the other unusual tidbits that you genuinely can't get anywhere else. So I guess in the end I got what I wanted, because all I really wanted was to be able to see past the uninspired dialogue that was clouding up this unusual and visual scifi treat. And I have. And the view from here is pretty spectacular. So! Any chance of a sequel?