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Archive for the ‘Movie Recommendations’ Category

Spoilers ahead: Do not read any further as crucial plot points will be discussed ….

 

Let me just say first that I really enjoyed the Last Jedi and thought it was better than its predecessor, The Force Awakens. That being said, the Last Jedi had some plot holes large enough to sling a bantha through which is mystifying given writer/director Rian Johnson’s otherwise solid workmanship. Were there not enough eyes on the script or too many? Hard to say at this distance.

Briefly, The Last Jedi takes place immediately after the events in The Force Awakens. The First Order has destroyed the capital of the Republic, but the Resistance has managed to destroy the new, improved Death Star, Starkiller Base. The Resistance forces are now on the run pursued by a First Order fleet that’s determined to wipe them out.

What I liked:

  • Excellent flow and pacing: The cuts between scenes were very well done, the switching between the storylines of different characters was seamless,  and the story clipped along quickly.
  • Central role of female characters: I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a Star Wars movie where the female characters (Leia, Holdo, Rose, Rey, Paige) played such crucial roles in the plot. The male characters are there certainly, but the women are linchpins of the story.
  • Improved costuming especially for Leia. The costume designer, Michael Kaplan, took his inspiration from Queen Elizabeth II and the result is much better clothes for Leia–more regal, more flattering. Especially noteworthy Leia’s striking cloak with a high collar.
  • Captain Kannady: The smart, no nonsense commander of the Imperial dreadnought. Kannady is one of the few competent officers that the First Order seems to have–which is probably why he lasts all of five minutes.
  • Sightings of British actors from Games of Thrones and other Brit TV shows: Apparently the First Order is very British in make up.
  • General Hux: Hux began as a one note baddie, but he actually begins to become somewhat sympathetic in this movie. The sibling rivalry between him and Kylo Ren as the competing, dysfunctional sons of the same abusive father (Snoke) was seeded in the first movie, but is now very much in evidence and can only become more pronounced in the upcoming third film.
  • Adam Driver as Kylo Ren: It’s a testimony to Driver’s skill and charisma as an actor that he invests Ren with so much interior conflict. This is the Darth Vader origin story that the prequels never delivered.
  • Best new character: Rose Tico played by Kelly Marie Tran. Introducing a new character into the Star Wars verse is always fraught with peril–think Jar Jar Binks–but Rose is very likeable and spunky. Also kudos to Veronica Ngo who plays her sister, Paige, early in the film. And I enjoyed Benicio Del Toro’s turn as D.J., the hacker. Del Toro’s character isn’t even given a name on screen, but he still delivers a nuanced performance.
  • The exquisite sets for the fight sequences especially the battle in the throne room and the final fight on Crait.

What I didn’t like:

  • One note villains: Is it really too much to expect that Star Wars antagonists be something other than mustache-twirling-style baddies? Apparently, the answer is yes to that. Snoke is dispatched before we learn anything about him, even how he got that massive scar. The only thing we learn is that he hates Luke Skywalker with a passion. Did Skywalker give him that scar? Was there a battle between them? We will never know. It’s a shame to see Snoke go because Andy Serkis does a great job with the character. Serkis simply exudes power and charisma even under all that CGI. Ditto for Phasma (Gwendolyn Christie) who is dispatched before we ever learn her back story.
  • Excellent actors whose characters aren’t developed: Laura Dern as Adm. Holdo has a wonderful chemistry with Leia (Carrie Fisher).
  • The entire “we must go a whole different planet in order to sabotage a flagship that is DIRECTLY behind us” plot. Don’t get me wrong–the casino planet visit was fun, but it should have come much earlier in the story.
  • Along those same lines, the “there is a suspected spy in the ranks” is also a plot line that is not played out well. It should have been introduced earlier which would have made Holdo’s secrecy and Poe’s mutiny much more credible.

And file this one under “Hmmm, Suspicious”:

  • In the extras, director Rian Johnson mentions at one point there was a rumor that General Hux was going to be killed off and he received a number of e-mails pleading for Hux’s life from Russian accounts. Just Russian Star Wars fans with an attachment to a fascist baddie as Johnson seems to think or another one of the Kremlin’s cyber warfare sallies?

 

 

 

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Shepherd Fairey’s poster for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.

I’ve watched (and read) any number of Arthurian stories so I was interested in seeing Guy Ritchie’s new movie, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. First off, this movie wasn’t as bad as the reviews made it out to be. Think of it as an Arthurian action-adventure story and you’ve got the gist of the film.

Ritchie takes a number of liberties with the familiar Arthurian legend. The main conflict is not between Arthur and his nephew, Mordred, but between Arthur and his wicked uncle, Vortigern, who has usurped the throne. There is a whole lot more magic–the sword Excalibur is a powerful magical weapon as opposed to being just a significant blade, the initial conflict that opens the film is between mages (magic-users) and non-magical humans, and Vortigern himself dabbles in sorcery.

In other ways, Ritchie holds close to certain medieval tropes. The bond between Arthur and his lads reflects the Anglo-Saxon idea of fellowship between a leader and his picked band of fighting men. Arthur does pull the sword from the stone revealing himself as the rightful king only in this case the stone is the transmuted body of Uther Pendragon.

 

Vortigern (Jude Law) and Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) confront each other after Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone.

To recap the story, young Arthur is orphaned after Vortigern kills his parents and grows up in a Londinium brothel where he discovers that skills like pimping, con artistry, extortion, and street fighting are the perfect preparation for a career in politics. Vortigern, meanwhile, has spent the past 20 or so years building a large, phallic-shaped tower which when completed will make him the most powerful mage in the land as well as king. When Vortigern discovers that his brother’s son is still alive and in possession of Excalibur, Arthur suddenly finds himself on the run, dodging government troops, with a magical sword he can’t control, and a sudden change of career that he’s not sure he wants.

Jude Law as Vortigern.

The best thing about this movie, next to the epic soundtrack, is Jude Law. Some are to the manor born; Law was clearly born to look fabulous in a fur cloak while plotting evilly.

The main flaw of the film is the lack of well-written female characters which was a problem in Ritche’s Sherlock flicks as well. To give you an idea, there are only two female characters with any major presence in this picture: one is The Mage (below) and the other are the Syrens, a trio of tentacled witches who hang out in the castle’s basement moat.  Every other female character in this story is flat, underwritten, and apparently only exists to be window dressing or to perish horribly when the plot requires.

Astrid Berges-Frisbey as the Mage.

The Mage, who’s name we never learn, is absolutely critical to Arthur’s success, saving his life twice and helping him to learn to use Excalibur. Does she get a knighthood, a seat at the Round Table, or any kind of public thank you or acknowledgement from the guy she helped put on the throne? Oh, heck no.

The Syrens–essentially Macbeth’s three witches with squid bodies–are consulted by Vortigern (pro tip: never accompany this guy to any body of water) and are critical to his rise to power. Again, we never learn their names and their fate at the end of the movie is unclear. Presumably, they’ve swum off to a new moat or lake.

Personally, instead of watching powerful women help lesser men to the throne, I’d like to see a movie where the powerful women take the throne and the men play the helpmate roles.

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Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show (circa 1973), you may want to watch it before you read further as I will definitely be discussing plots points. Read on at your own risk.

 

I recently ran across two versions of that cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, that I thought I would share with you. The first is a “re-imagining” (you can say “re-make”, I know I do) of the film starring Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank N. Furter. As a transgender woman, Cox brings a refreshing, feminine energy to the part. If Tim Curry has the moves like Jagger, then Cox has the moves like James Brown and Tina Turner. The made-for-TV 2016 version is also tighter paced and emphasizes the rock ‘n roll roots of the original.

While there is no shortage of name talent in the show, I’d like to single out relative newcomer Staz Nair for his portrayal of Rocky. Although Nair has songs and some speaking lines, it’s his nonverbal body language and facial expressions that make the show. Nair invests Rocky with both great comic timing and a touching sensitivity.

The casting of Cox as a more feminine Frank does change the subtext of the story somewhat. In the original, the big reveal was straight-laced Brad’s latent homosexuality. In this new version, Janet’s dalliance with Cox and then with Rocky (the Creature) confirms her bi-sexuality. Frank’s jealous rage at Janet after her affair with Rocky has definite “lesbians in bondage” undertones.

In the 1973 film, Frank’s death at Riff-Raff’s hands is justified by Dr. Scott as protecting society–although what society is being protected from is never clear. Is it sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll? Kids from Transylvania and their loud music? Fishnet stockings? In the 2016 version, Frank’s execution seems to be a reference to the high levels of violence directed against transgender men and women.

While the 1973 film is probably the version of Rocky Horror that most people are familiar with, the show was originally a stage production. As a theatrical show, it is still performed all around the world with many different actors assaying the role of Frank and the other characters.

The following (bless you, YouTube) is a 2015 London stage production of Rocky Horror done as a fundraiser for Amnesty International. Stephen Frye is one of the guest narrators as is the musical’s author/composer, Richard O’Brien.

If you’re familiar with Rocky Horror, you know that audience interaction is encouraged and that there are set things for the audience to call out at various points during the movie. In a live show that tradition continues and the audiences sometimes levels up by shouting out new things to the actors which occasionally plays havoc with their composure.

David Bedella plays Frank in this production and brings a wicked charm to the part that’s a lot of fun to watch. If you’re wondering (as I did) who Bedella is and why you haven’t heard of this awesome actor before, the short answer is that Bedella is an American making his name across the pond in the London musical scene. In 2004, he won an Olivier award (the British equivalent of the Tonys) for his role in Jerry Springer: The Opera. As he was filming this version of Rocky Horror, Bedella was also in rehearsals for In The Heights for which he won a second Olivier for Best Supporting Actor (2016).

Verdict: Watch both versions and enjoy!

 

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ghostbusters-ii

“We just gave a ghost a nuke. We should probably run.”

                                                                            –Abby (Ghostbusters 2016)

I have shamefully neglected this blog, friends, but I’m back now and ready to rumble.

Just spent an excellent couple of hours watching two really great sf/f movies with surprisingly feminist subtexts. Be forewarned: plot developments are discussed so if YOU DON’T WANT ANY SPOILERS, READ NO FURTHER.

First up is the new Ghostbusters movie which is probably most famous for receiving a large amount of misogynist and racist hate mail before and after its release. Having watched it, all I can say is that the haters must be evil spirits who want to wreak havoc upon the earth because this is a great movie and easily three times better than the original which was, let’s face it, a raunchy ’80s locker room comedy.

In this version, the focus is on the relationship between two estranged former friends–physicist Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and paranormal investigator Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). Erin is on the verge of her tenure review at Columbia when she is drawn back into Abby’s world of paranormal investigation by a desperate curator of a haunted mansion and a whole lot of ectoplasm. Out of work and on their own, Erin and her team must race against time to find out who or what is triggering a city-wide outbreak of ghostly activity. Kate McKinnon steals many scenes with her cool-yet-crazy turn as team engineer Holtzmann while Leslie Jones is local historian/subway worker-turned-ghostbuster Patty. Sprinkled through the movie are lots of great shoutouts to the first movie as well as cameos by the original cast.

What intrigued me the most, though, is the feminist thread that runs throughout the storyline. For example, a number of critics found the character of Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), the handsome yet thick-as-a-plank receptionist to be unrealistic. I, on the other hand, found it completely realistic. Kevin is the type of lousy assistant that the Ghostbusters team has to tolerate because as women they don’t have the leverage to hire someone better. I flashed immediately to two male student assistants I was once asked to find work for. Both of them bungled the simple jobs they were asked to do and both seemed to resent being corrected or given orders by women. Needless to say, I got rid of them as soon as I could.

Throughout the film, the Ghostbusters team receives constant flack because they are female with pretty much every sector of society questioning their competence, their honesty, and their sanity. As Abby puts it, “we get dumped on all the time.”  One of the underlying themes of Paul Feig’s movies is the power of female friendships and this is what the team relies on to get them through, save the day, and New York City.

 

alice-through-the-looking-glass

“You cannot change the past, but you can learn from it.”

                                             —Time Himself (Through the Looking Glass)

Next up is Alice Through the Look Glass, another sequel that has unfairly received negative reviews. Again, I can’t understand it because this film is a beautiful, touching allegory. Bring your tissues because unless you have a clockwork heart, you will tear up.

When we last saw Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) at the end of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, she was sailing away on trading vessel bound for China, having chosen a life as a Company apprentice over marriage to the pompous Hamish. As Through the Looking Glass opens, three years later, we see Alice, now the captain of her father’s ship, returning triumphant to England.

But there’s no cheering crowd and congratulations for young Captain Kingsleigh. On the contrary, there’s trouble from every corner.  In the interval, old Lord Ascot, Alice’s father’s friend, has died and has been succeeded by the unpleasant Hamish who is out to exact vengeance on Alice for refusing him. Hamish has extorted Alice’s company shares from her mother, Helen Kingsleigh (Lindsay Duncan), and is now threatening to take the Kingsleigh family home unless Helen and Alice sign over her father’s ship.

Alice also receives a summons back to Wonderland where the Hatter’s wits seem to have finally turned: he insists that his family, the Hightop clan, is still alive despite them having all perished in the Red Queen’s coup. To save him, Alice must confront Time Himself (Sacha Baron Cohen) and travel back into the past. In doing so, we learn more about both the Hatter’s family and the relationship between the sister queens, Mirana and Iracebeth.

Through the Looking Glass also has a feminist thread running throughout its storyline. Again and again, Alice must assert herself against the obstacles both English and Wonderland society put in her way in order to do the right thing and to live her life freely. Alice, closer to her idealistic, unconventional father, has always clashed with her more traditional mother, Helen. Without giving too much away, it’s a pleasure to see these two start to learn from and respect other.

 

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“We’re pandas. We don’t do stairs.” –Li, Po’s father, summoning an elevator

“I’ve been waiting my whole life to hear those words.” –Po

 

Me, too, Po, me, too. I’m also borrowing “panda asthma” as an excuse every time I have to catch my breath at the top of a flight of stairs.

Kung Fu Panda 3 continues the story of Po, the kung fu fanboy turned Dragon Warrior. Po is comfortable in his role as the village hero and fighting bad guys with his friends, the Furious Five, but Master Shifu feels that it is time for him to move to the next level and become a teacher himself. In order to do that, Po must learn the ways of the Force …er…master chi, the life force that flows through everything.

Complicating things is the return of two people long thought dead–Li, Po’s biological father, and Kai, a warlord returned from the Spirit Realm, bent on re-creating his former glory. We also learn a surprising amount about Master Oogway’s backstory including what set him on a path from warrior to monk.

The secondary plot concerns the competition between Po’s two dads–his panda father, Li, and his goose father, Ping–for Po’s affections. Ping, his adoptive father, is understandably worried when Li takes Po back to a hidden panda village (Pangri-La, perhaps?) to rediscover his pandahood.

The animation throughout the film is utterly exquisite. The movie is worth seeing just for the quality of the artwork alone. As a film, Kung Fu Panda 3 is closer in tone to the first movie of the series.

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inside-llewyn-davis-oscar-isaac-cat-1

Inside Llewyn Davis is much less plot driven than other Coen Brothers movies. Essentially a slice-of-life film, the movie follows struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) as he tries to make it as professional musician in New York circa 1961. A good singer and guitar player, Llewyn’s inability to catch a break is partly the fault of the decisions he makes and is partly the fault of Fate.

I first became aware of Oscar Isaac as an actor when he was cast as Prince John in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood and I marked him then as an actor to watch. Since then, Isaac has gone from strong performance to strong performance, usually playing dark, brooding characters. Here Isaac is supported by an outstanding cast including Carey Mulligan as his lover, Jean, an unrecognizable Justin Timberlake as Jean’s husband, Jim,  and Force Awakens co-star, Adam Driver, as Al Cody, another aspiring folk singer. A special shout out to actor Stark Sands for his portrayal of G.I. Troy Nelson. Sands doesn’t seem to be playing Nelson as much as he seems to have time-traveled to the set from the 1960s.

If you enjoy the music heard in the film, you may be interested in Another Time, Another Place, a folk music concert put together by the film’s music producer, T Bone Burnett. Sadly, the concert doesn’t include my favorite song from the movie, “Please Mr. Kennedy (Don’t Shoot Me into Outer Space)”, a parody of ’60s novelty songs written especially for the film.

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