Category Archives: Movies

The Great Wall–a movie reaction

TL; dr: I feel conflicted and feel conflicted about feeling conflicted about my enjoying the movie.

The Great Wall, directed by Zhang Yimou, and starring Matt Damon, is a gorgeous, lean and mean blockbuster that entertained me for two hours and engaged my senses. And I feel very conflicted about enjoying it.

Matt Damon plays William. William is a mercenary who has, in the time of the Song Dynasty (around 1100 AD or so, judging from William’s comments, the location of the Chinese Capital, and so on), traveled with some companions across the length of Eurasia in search of the secret of black powder. His companions but two die quickly while being chased by Khitan horsemen, and another dies awkwardly offscreen, leaving just him and his Iberian companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal). Chased by the bandits, and having killed a strange creature in the night, William and Tovar run right into the Great Wall, which has been preparing for an invasion of the monstrous Tao Tei. Every sixty years the Tao Tei come at China, and the time for another attack is nigh. While there, William and Tovar meet Ballard (Willem Defoe) who, twenty five years earlier, came to China for the same reason, but has been trapped ever since. That’s the extent of the Western characters in this movie.

Jing Tian leads the much larger Chinese cast. As Commander Lin, she leads a Crane Troop, a group of women warriors who make death defying dives from platforms on the wall during Tao Tei sieges. It’s absolutely impractical against the Tao Tei zerg rush, but damn, doesn’t it look cool. Zhang Henyu plays the General of the army on the Wall, and Andy Lau plays Wang, a strategist and advisor whose warnings about the Tao Tei have not been heeded as well as they might. Lu Han plays Peng, a young warrior who, language difficulties aside, forms a bond with William. We also get some commanders, a cowardly and sniveling counselor, and a self-centered, cowardly and not at all flatteringly portrayed teenage Emperor who, even so, is probably more mature than Donald Trump

The movie’s visuals are amazing. This was directed by Zhang Yimou, and if you seen Hero, or House of Flying Daggers, or Curse of the Golden Flower, you know what you are in for. Gorgeous cinematography and action sequences with closeups of flying objects. Strongly coded primary colored costumes and things. (The Crane troop, for example, are all in gorgeous blue armor). Lavishly detailed framing of people and things inhabiting their backdrops. This movie was wonderful to just look at. The action sequences were consistently intelligible. The movie doesn’t drag or flag and is paced well.

I loved the proto-silkpunk tech of the movie, however anachronistic and unrealistic. Given that this was most definitely a fantastic Song Dynasty China, I just went with it, especially when they unleashed primitive and unstable balloons on top of their crossbows, crane divers, scissoring blades, interlocking shields, and the rest of the weaponry on command here (And yes, I got a Ken Liu vibe when those balloons appeared).

I am going to steal stuff for this movie for my roleplaying games, that’s for certain. The monsters themselves, some of the characters, and the ideas shown here. Its a realized world that I really like, and want to use pieces of elsewhere. I will be buying this on DVD when it comes out.

The movie was entertaining, fun, and gorgeous and yet I feel conflicted about having seen this, and it does come to the whole “Mighty Whitey” trope. You know this one. White person goes to a foreign land, or even a foreign planet, and it is he (its very often a he) is the absolute key and answer to the problem bedeviling the locals. Heck, if you look even at the movie Independence Day, the entire world seems to be just waiting and faffing for America to lead the way. Same idea. William does bring the lodestone magnet that proves key to beating the Tao Tei. His archery and heroics are crucial to the defeat of the Tao Tei.

Is he a Mighty Whitey? I feel like I can’t really answer that question, and that is what burns at me. I’m a white guy from New York City. Is it for me to determine if something isn’t a Mighty Whitey trope? Is it for me to say, no, this is okay, it’s not really a Mighty Whitey, this is something one can enjoy without concerns of depiction? I can point out the director, the production, the preponderance of characters, statements by the production and all that, but that’s again, feels like I am making a statement I have no standing to make. It would be just as bad for me to say to a woman that an instance of fridging in a movie really isn’t one, or something out and out racist really wasn’t. It wouldn’t be right. It’s not my place to say that.

And yet I saw and enjoyed the film. Does that make me a bad person? Did I do harm by seeing this film, paying the money to do so? I don’t know. Long time readers of my work know my fascination and desire for stories that transcend the “Great Wall of Europe”, especially in fantasy novels. The movie Dragon Blade, with all its absolute wrongheadedness of history, is a story of Romans meeting Han Chinese and that was and is awesome to me. I enjoyed the hell out of it. And then there is the now canceled series Marco Polo, which I really like. I want more like Dragon Blade, and more like Great Wall, and more like Marco Polo..but is it a bad thing that I want this? I really, honestly don’t know, and that is why I feel conflicted. I am not even sure I am sum up “Yes, go see this!” or “No, stay away!”.

I feel conflicted, and awful. And I feel conflicted about that, too, and on and in a recursive fashion. Maybe its best to say that this is the kind of movie that I want and enjoy…and that may in itself be a problem. Or maybe I am overthinking this. I don’t know.

Rogue One: Thoughts

Right, so Rogue One Spoilers, naturally. Right from the get go.

I was nervous about The Force Awakens. I had seen The Phantom Menace in theaters on opening day, and turned out to be a bad life choice for me. I wasn’t sure that even The Mouse could save Star Wars movies. I turned out to be delightfully wrong. Based on the strength of that, I was cautiously optimistic that Rogue One would not bring us back to the bad old days (for me) of the prequels.

So, the short answer is, in the main, it was an excellent war movie Star Wars movie. The movie made some choices I don’t think worked as well as they might have, though, and at least one choice that I actively hated.

So, the plot is, if you didn’t know, is the story of how Leia got the plans on the Tantive IV in the first place. How were those plans gathered? Rogue One tells us how we get there through the eyes of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones). Jyn is the daughter of a Imperial weapons designer (Mads Mikkelsen) who tries to go straight, fails, and is dragged back to finish his great project–yep, the Death Star. Years later, Jyn, living alone, gets recruited forcibly by the Alliance only at first as a way for the alliance to reach a splinter Rebel leader (Forest Whitaker’s character) who has gotten a message from Jyn’s father about a weakness in the Death Star. In the course of that mess, she gains companions, comes to join the rebel alliance, and finally steps up to lead the mission to try and get the full plans of the Death Star to exploit that weakness.

So, what worked?

This movie is the best war story we’ve seen in Star Wars and it brings the cost and nature of war, and occupation to Star Wars that exactly none of the rest of the movies have done. We see what an occupied city looks like, and acts like. We get to finally see what the hell an AT-ST (the small chicken leg walkers maligned in Return of the Jedi) are good for–they are for urban population control. Its SO obvious, now! We get some gorgeous cinematography…like when we see our first Star Destroyer, emerging out of darkness into bright light. So gorgeous. The strong use of practical effects and keeping in with the in-universe tech of Star Wars kept me in the story–whereas the CGI shiniess of the stuff in the prequels kept looking like a video game and not really Star Wars at all. K-2S0 gives us a different kind of droid character–not the adorable small droid (r2d2, bb8 type) and not a fussy protocol droid, but an reprogrammed Imperial Droid with a snarky sense of humor. And Y-Wings (my favorite ship in the Star Wars universe, obsolete as they are) prove their mettle in disabling a Star Destroyer. Badass!

The fact that we see a lower power setting for the Death Star, “only” destroying a city, is terrifying. The Empire could use the Death Star and not even have to “go all the way”. Destroy a portion of a planet to make its mark and let the rest fall into line, keeping the valuable real estate. That’s a frightening reimagining of the level of its powers.

What didn’t work?

First and foremost, the two CGIed actors–Carrie Fisher’s Leia in a cameo at the end, and throughout the movie Cushing’s Tarkin. The technology to make them not uncanny valley is not there yet, and Tarkin, especially, when he was in groups of people was noticeably “not real” and the body language and look are all wrong. While I can see why the character was essential, making a CGI version of him didn’t work. I suspect, though, that the technology will definitely get a boost after this movie. This movie won’t be the last time we get a digitized actor in a role.

I also think the team was maybe one character too much for some really meaty development of the characters. Jyn gets an arc, but no one else really does. Cassian doesn’t, certainly, although he gets a moment of not taking a shot he could have taken. More could have been done with that. And would it have killed the movie not to Smurfette Jyn on the team?

I am of two minds about the reveal in this movie–that the thermal exhaust port was a flaw in the Death Star by design in the beginning by its designer, meant to be an exploit to be used to destroy it. While that does clear up the “why is there such an obvious way to destroy it” problem of the massive thing–it was made to have a flaw, on the other hand, the dialogue in Star Wars now feels a little discordant–“we’ve found a weakness” is not quite “Finding *the* weakness left there”. Its a subtle distinction but its a real one. In a similar mind, the dialogue about the Tantive IV being a diplomatic ship on a diplomatic mission–well, Vader knows *patently* that’s not true–because he watched it escape. Even further, in the crawl to A New Hope (and there is no crawl to this movie, by the way), the crawl mentions that the Rebels have achieved a victory over Empire forces. This was…not a victory. The Empire loses a couple of Star Destroyers and lot of materiel, but the Rebels take heavy losses, including their flagship. Pyrrhic victory at best, and if Vader had been a little faster…no victory at all.

The fact that all of the main cast die was, in the end, no surprise. It avoids the “Where were they for the rest of the movies” problem, neatly.

I can say, that two movies into their ownership, The Mouse seems to know what its doing with Star Wars film. I want to see more Star Wars films, both in and out of the main storyarc. Rogue One has solidified me being excited for Star Wars again. No small feat.

Review and Thoughts: Doctor Strange (2016)

Tell me if you recognize this story from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

A brilliant, snarky, assholish rich person with amazing skills strides through life blandly, confident that he knows everything, and often can back up his reputation with cold hard skills and knowledge. He is an endless deadpan snarker, always ready with a cutting jape or a quip for friend and rival alike. He has a long-suffering quasi love interest who clearly deserves better. We get to see him in his glory before an accident brings him low and nearly kills it. Worse, it doesn’t kill him, but gives him a permanent debility, changing his future plans forever. Said asshole learns to be better slowly and painfully in a period of retrenchment and regrowth, becoming a superhero in the process, and defrosting the heart of his love interest a bit whilst in the middle of battling the big baddie.

I could be describing Iron Man, but I am also describing Doctor Strange, and that is the core of one of the problems I found with the 2016 Marvel Cinematic Universe story. For all of its faults, and for all of its joys, Doctor Strange is a story we’ve seen before, and in a tone and mode we’ve seen before. Its yet another origin story movie for the MCU and unlike, say, Ant-Man, it follows way too familiar beats in that origin story.

The change from the Tibetan origins of Strange’s powers in the movie, I think, weakens it too. While I understand realpolitik as reasons why the setting gets changed from Tibet to Nepal, and the Ancient One changed to a “Celtic” Tilda Swinton (and she IS a fabulous actress in this, the person clearly having the most fun with her role), it does miss some opportunities in casting ,setting, and character choice thereby. The movie does try to balance things by having Mordo be played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, but the movie still feels like it misstepped with these alterations. And Ejiofor’s character only really gets some juice, and the actor gets his “A” game on in the last portion of the movie. Too, I would have liked to have seen more of Benedict Wong as the librarian, especially given his excellent work as Kublai Khan in Marco Polo. He was badly under-utilized.

There are some other things that bothered me, too, besides the whitewashing. You’ve already gone in for changes on the background of the character, so having Cumberbatch saddle himself with an American accent is, I think, a mistake. His normal British accent is distinctive, strong and one of his best features, and so taking it off the table is missing a bet. Too, I think having Rachel McAdams, she who embodies the love interest in modern cinema, is a coup as Christine-but giving her more to do would have been sorely welcome. Really, you could have made Christine Strange’s mother’s sister’s niece’s cousin’s former roommate and it would have not been any real change to the story. Mads Mikkelsen as the baddie, I am afraid I was distracted by the CGI around his eyes to really get a hook on his role and acting.

So what did the movie get right?

The gonzo nature of Strange’s multiverse is explained and depicted in a way we haven’t really seen before in film. We get Inceptiony type stuff, we get Ditko-esque type stuff, and we get visions and locations that defy description and characterization. I saw the movie in 2D and it looks absolutely gorgeous and the movie knows it. Better, the editing and cinematography are done excellently. There are plenty of fight scenes but we always can tell who is doing what to whom, even if it is a lot of CGI stuff. That CGI is rendered well, so that we can see the forms of spells, of astral projection, of Portals, and it all looks crisp and sharp. I would have love to have been able to freeze frame the spells and get a *real* look at what the sigils looked like. The movie does seem afraid to go too long without pulling another visual rabbit out of its hat, but that goes part and parcel with films like this, and for this movie, it works.

For the changes mentioned above, there are a ton of touchpoints to the comics story of Dr. Strange that I appreciated. From characters to magic items, the script knows its roots and honors them fully, and after the movie, I explained a few things to my movie buddy, who isn’t as deep into Marvel comics as I am (I’ve done this before for him.). I think I even saw the face of the Watcher at one point in the film, but I’d want to see it again to make sure. There is a Stan Lee cameo, of course.

As opposed to the comics, the bindings to the MCU movies we’ve seen before are lighter, and sometimes seem a bit shoehorned in just to make viewers assured this IS a movie set in that world. There is a possible, oblique reference to Rhodey, too oblique, I think. There is a more explicit Avengers tag, a throwaway line about an Infinity Stone. All of these are overshadowed by a credit cookie which I will not spoil–save that it definitely binds the movie into the MCU at that point. But other than that…the rest of the MCU really doesn’t exist as far as this movie is concerned. I suppose that someone who has not seen any of the Marvel movies could, in fact, “Start here” without any trouble.

So, is it worth seeing? Although it is a cookie cutter template of an origin story, has problems with its whitewashing and has uneven results in the casting and roles, my attention never wandered and I was always entertained. The movie tries sometimes too hard with its humor, and even makes a joke about that within the movie! Sometimes the movie’s tonal shifts need work, but its shift, not out and out whiplash–this movie was a bit inspired by Ant-Man in terms of those tonal gears. And the movie gets more confident with what it’s doing as it progresses, it finishes much better than it starts. The endgame for the movie, what the villain is doing, and what the hero is doing to stop him, is straight up, clear and makes sense. (Again, a tip of the nod for the scriptwriters for that).

When the movie really goes for the eye-popping visuals, I was astonished. We live in a world and era where the very over the top weirdness of Dr. Strange’s world can be depicted on screen beautifully and appealingly, and the movie holds nothing back in that regard. Most of the violence is non-bloody CGI based, although there is a beheading at one point, and a number of scenes in surgery (quelle surprise). The CGI based violence does make it more kid friendly in some ways.

Oh and I have plenty of stuff I can borrow from this movie for various roleplaying games, too, and I will be happy to do that, too.

So, let me put Doctor Strange in my personal ranking of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, since I have seen them all to date. I do move movies up and down this list some, but this is how it stands as of 11/5/2016, best to worst:

Avengers
Iron Man I
Captain America: the Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Thor
Captain America
—Threshold of Awesome–
Captain America: Civil War
Doctor Strange
Iron Man III
Avengers II
Ant-Man
Thor II
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man II

Halloween Movies, Jvstin Style

I am not a big horror movie maven. It’s not really my genre and never really has been for whatever reason. Still, I have movies which partake of horror elements in my collection and every so often I do like to watch a couple.

So if I wanted to go overboard on movies with horror elements for Halloween viewing, I’d go with these:

eXistenZ, by David Cronenberg.

There’s enough body horror in this movie for me to put it on a Halloween list. Sure, its about virtual realities and videogames, but this IS early to mid Cronenberg, so there is plenty of elements that move toward horror, as well.

Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness by John Carpenter

Let’s go with cosmic horrors for this pair from Carpenter. In the first, Satan is in a giant test tube hidden by the Catholic church, and seeking to free himself so he can free his father, Anti-God. With bonus Alice Cooper as a possessed homeless person! In the Mouth of Madness goes with the reality mind screw, as hack horror writer Sutter Cane warps reality toward the return of Lovecraftian beasties, all filtered through a poor Insurance investigator who realizes he’s fictional.

28 Days Later

28 Days Later is probably the seminal work in the “new Zombie” craze that hit movies. Monkey gets infected with a zombie virus (“rage”) in order to study it. Environmental activists unwittingly unleash it on London. A man who has been in a coma wakes up 28 Days Later. And we’re off running.

Dawn of the Dead (2004 remake). I know, not the original. I told you I am not well schooled in horror movies but I like this remake even if it doesn’t really break any new ground. I love the strange world that the mall shelterees try to make for themselves, until it all eventually goes to hell.

It Follows
My fellow Skiffy and Fanty members got me to watch this one, about a sexually transmitted supernatural curse that stalks its victim. Dark and most excellent.

The Ring (US remake)
I know I am an uncultured barbarian who hasn’t seen the Japanese original. The American remake is creepy enough, thank you very much. The idea of watching and seeing something that dooms you to die is as old as The Medusa but the idea of this videotape, and the force behind it, is a mind screw.

Event Horizon

Finally, one of my favorite movies set in space, period, the story of a ghost ship, come back from hyperspace, and the evil that it has brought with it, and the rescue ship sent to study it. Poor Sam Neill goes through all sorts of hell for the second movie on this list, but with a very different endpoint. And how many movies use a mistranslation of Latin as a plot point?

Happy Halloween!

2015 in Movies

A post by request of the QT3 crew. I am a frequent and avid listener of their podcast.

I didn’t watch as many movies in the theater in 2015 as I usually do. This has limited my list making somewhat, but here are my favorite/best movies of 2015:

7. Dragon Blade: It came out in the US in 2015, anyway. A weird fantastical mashup, Chinese versus Romans on the Silk Road, with Jackie Chan, Adrien Brody and John Cusack. It’s gorgeous to watch.

6. Ant-Man: The better of the two Marvel movies by a decent shot. Its a story we’ve seen before, but well told. Could have been better, but was lots of fun.

5. It Follows: I’m not a horror guy, but I was encouraged to see this one by a lot of people, and boy I was glad I did.

4. Star Wars: the Force Awakens: The movie that brought me back into Star Wars. No small feat. Seen it three times.

3. Sicario: The Drug war on the Mexico border, with Emily Blunt as an agent in over her head, and a really good performance from Benicio Del Toro.

2. Ex Machina: AI, the nature of consciousness, ethics, the male gaze, hidden agendas. And so much more. Its a gorgeous film, and the three leads carry the film and make it work beautifully.

1. Mad Max Fury Road: I was blown away by this film. The Skiffy and Fanty crew loved it too. and I also wrote about it as an RPG.

My current ranking of movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

1) The Avengers (A+)
2) Guardians of the Galaxy (A+)
3) Iron Man 1 (A+)
4) Thor (A)
5) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (A-)
6) Captain America, The First Avenger (B+)
(The Howard Tayler Threshold of Awesome is here. Movies above this I rewatch again and again)
7) Iron Man 3 (B)
8) The Avengers: Age of Ultron (B-)
9) Thor: The Dark World (B-)
10) Iron Man 2 (C-)

I didn’t bother putting the Norton Hulk on this list. I’m not even sure how much of its canonical at this point.

A thought on The Desolation of Smaug

Its stunningly unfaithful to the book. He stuffs as much of Middle Earth Arcana into the story as he can.
I suppose Jackson realizes he is never going to get to film a story about Beren and Luthien, or Turin Turambar, and so incorporating as much of the myth of the LOTR universe as he can, even if it fills “The Hobbit” to bursting, is his way of getting the next best thing.
The movie feels a lot less schizophrenic in tone than Unexpected Journey, though.