Movie Reviews Archive

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A Mostly Pointless Spoiler-Free “Review” of Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens

Let’s boil things down to one simple, 80s CRPG-style preamble and question.

You see a movie theatre. It’s playing Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens. Do you buy a ticket? (Y/N)

Your answer should be yes.

This is mostly everything I’m going to say about The Force Awakens. Not because I’m lazy, but because I suspect it’s all people want to know, at least for now.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I want to say about this movie. I could fill pages discussing the way The Force Awakens hits every mythological beat in terms of telling a story that could be right out of Greek mythology. But that’s not what people want, is it?

Between little old ladies demanding blood oaths against spoilers on pain of a heavy sack beating, a general distrust of the Snakes on a Plane-level of hype surrounding TFA, and oh-so-many Attack of the Clones shaped scars courtesy of Lucas’ second kick at the can, I’m left to ask what’s the fucking point of writing a review? Anything I put together that wouldn’t risk offending sensibilities would be the sort of pale mockery of criticism that comes with the joke of the objective video game review.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a motion picture. It is filmed in colour. There are many actors representing both humans and non-humans. The story is set in a galaxy far from our own, at a point in time removed from our own. The film is paced into three narrative acts, with a prologue and epilogue. The actors convey a range of human emotions in their attempt to tell a story.

I trust the point is made.

While I submit that any story worth its salt can’t be spoiled on the grounds of plot details alone, I’ll not invite the scorn of the internet for my inability to perfectly divine what may or may not offend. To be honest, The Force Awakens is strong enough that I could summarize the plot and comment on its themes without diminishing the experience. But with various plug-ins and apps filtering out Star Wars related comments and content, what’s the point in writing for an audience that doesn’t want it? I write reviews with the expectation that that my words will provide some value to readers. The general buzz around the internet is that said value is neither welcome nor required at this particular juncture.

So if all people want is reassurance, then here it comes.

Is The Force Awakens better than episodes 1, 2, or 3? Absolutely.

Should you go see it? Without a doubt.

Is it going to make you feel feelings other than disgust and boredom a la Attack of the Clones? You bet. All of the feels.

Did Lawrence Kasdan write a good movie? Without a doubt.

Did JJ screw it up? Not even a little.

There. Are you not reassured?


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Movie Review: Jupiter Ascending

It would be too easy to call Jupiter Ascending a “bad” film. It would also be a crime against the English language and common decency, itself, to suggest the Wachowskis’ sci-fi epic is a “good” movie. Jupiter Ascending wants, desperately so, to be a 21st century version of The Fifth Element. But the Wachowskis are no Luc Besson, and Jupiter Ascending, for all its ambition and flash, lacks the essential charm, timing, and wit that made The Fifth Element work.

Jupiter Ascending tells the story of Jackie Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a Russian émigré, who cleans American toilets for a living. The movie is smart enough to get right into the sci-fi twist on the longing-ladies-of-fairy-tales trope, rather than spending forty minutes faffing about with Jupiter’s backstory. We witness a few scenes of Jupiter coveting the expensive lifestyle of her social betters as a prelude to a bunch of Sectoids aliens legally distinct from X-Com’s intellectual property showing up to kill her. Fortunately, Jupiter has a guardian in the form of Channing Tatum, who plays some sort of wolfman hybrid with hover boots, man pain, and the power to remain shirtless for half his scenes.

So yeah, I guess I’m not the target demographic. If the secret alien princess gimmick doesn’t elucidate who the movie is playing to, then the parade of beefcake probably drives home the point. The scantily clad space babes of literally any other sci-fi movie are replaced by shirtless dudes alternatively pouting, grimacing, or showcasing their troubled past through gruffness. Okay, cool. Points for being different. Points for being progressive. However, dismantling traditional cinematic sexism through benign machismo and eye candy doesn’t add much to the story.

And at the risk of putting too fine a point on things, Jupiter Ascending’s story is probably the worst part of the movie. The aesthetics are amazing. Ships, costumes, and orbital megastructures all boast a richness of design and promise an amazing backstory. Visually, Jupiter Ascending makes Mass Effect look like the crude scribblings of a toddler with their crayons. What do they yield in terms of story? Cinderella meets the three bears. To wit:

I hate my life on earth.

Oh no, the bad aliens are trying to kill me, let’s go to space and meet my genetic children who all want to use me for some nefarious purpose.

This child is too cloying.

This child is too incestuous.

This child is too psychotic.

Well, fuck it. I’m going back to Chicago to clean toilets and hang out with my beefcake, wolfman, alien boyfriend. Also, hover shoes and I secretly own the Earth, but I still clean toilets because now I appreciate my garbage life through the lens of a meta immigrant experience.

Seriously, this is the entire story. For all the splendor built into Jupiter Ascending’s world, the actual story is light years wide and inches deep.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: it’s an action movie, of course it’s going to be shallow. Perhaps, perhaps not. What’s problematic in this case is how the lack of depth in the story shines a light on all of the areas where the writing cribs from other parts of science fiction’s history. In some ways, the entire enterprise is a love letter to L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth. Not the movie, mind you, the much, much longer novel about space capitalists. Likewise, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the movie’s utterly pointless homage to Brazil is the product of the Wachowskis holding Terry Gilliam’s cat hostage in exchange for ten pages of script. And when Jupiter invokes Brazil’s infamous form 27b/6 as a regulation against being kidnapped, I honestly could not tell if the movie is winking at the audience or shouting, “Do you get it?” like Bojack Horseman.

So it’s the archetypical hero’s journey for Jupiter and Jupiter Ascending. The story reaches for greatness, but it is poorly assembled and a depressingly textbook affair. This said, the movie stunning in its visual richness. The costuming is as extravagant as what one would expect from a Sofia Copolla period piece. The problem is that none of the aesthetic translates to meaningful plot. It adds depth to the setting, but not to the story. And without a strong story to anchor the fantastic, the entire narrative spins off in a thousand inchoate directions.

Jupiter Ascending

Directors: Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Writers: Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Stars: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne


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Movie Review: Ex Machina

UPDATE: I missed the point of this movie.

I’m a white guy who works in economics and economic development. Much like the tech industry, my field can be a boys club. That means I suffer from a bit of myopia when it comes to a story that deals with the literal objectification of women within a given industry. I got this one wrong. I’ve taken this error and turned it into a 1200 word essay I’m pitching to a few websites and magazines. I want my mea culpa on this to be as public as I can make it. I’ll leave the original review below as a perpetual reminder that sometimes I need to think harder before putting pen to paper.

A film like Ex Machina is an inevitable sort of thing. There’s nothing particularly profound in asking what will happen when someone with the tech savvy and wealth of Mark Zuckerberg, for example, turns his attention toward creating an artificial general intelligence for puerile purposes. Nor do I think that the latest entry from writer/director Alex Garland is a particularly fresh take on the decades-old man versus machine story. Ex Machina orbits a done idea based on a half-baked concept: the thinking machine challenging its creator. Yet a lack of novelty does not preclude the film being a technically proficient experience and a reasonably engaging story, even if the ending is dull as it comes.

Ex Machina is, essentially, a more philosophically inclined take on Robocop’s formula of character transformation. Herein, a reclusive tech savant summons a programmer to his mountain fortress. The programmer’s task is to administer a modified Turing Test on a human-form the robot. Ava (Alicia Vikander), the robot, and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), the programmer, engage in a series of dialogues where the programmer tests the humanity of the machine.

Narrative and visual clues, alike, suggest Caleb’s interviews with Ava are part of some test within a test. The film invites its audience to speculate about the true subject of the study. To my surprise, Ex Machina is sufficiently nimble in its writing to keep a viewer guessing, at least up until the end of the second act. Still, its endurance is no small feat for a movie with only four characters and a handful of sets.

Once the gambit is revealed, Ex Machina’s ending is something of a cut cloth affair. The movie’s tone shifts from one of discovery to heavy handed moralizing. To wit, mad engineering (e.g. making something for the sake of making it) is irresponsible, particularly where sentient beings are concerned. Giving a sex robot a sense of self proves to be an act of gross over-engineering. The movie’s ultimate scene is wrapped in a ribbon of the watchmaker’s hubris. Narrative consistency precludes any mention of Asimov’s Three Laws, thus resulting in an ending that hasn’t been fresh since 1970’s Colossus: The Forbin Project.

What I find most disappointing is how the film invites the average viewer, or at least someone who reads/writes less science fiction than this critic, to view Ex Machina’s lessons profound revelations. Certainly there is room to see this film as an empowering feminist critique on the commoditization of the female form. It’s easy to imagine how Nathan aka Evil Zuckerberg would monetize some variation of his sex robot into a consumer model. At the same time, there’s a fundamental misalignment between the depiction of a genuine AI we see on screen, and the rather limited AI necessary for building a convincing sex bot. In other words, if a person wanted to make a sex robot, they wouldn’t make something as smart as a Cylon. All they need is something that can convince its user it enjoys butt stuff as modus vivendi.

Ava may defy convention, existing as a princess-who-rescues-herself, but she only does so through the lens of a decades old technophobia. I expect more from science fiction of this day and age. It’s time to move past the fear of how machines might usurp and supplant humanity. This said, Ex Machina is sufficiently well-polished to rise above its rather limited imagination. There’s enough misdirection in the story’s first two-thirds to keep a viewer off balance, right up until the point where it goes reducto ad HAL 9000 in the third act.

Ex Machina

Director: Alex Garland

Writer: Alex Garland

Stars: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac


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Movie Review: The Martian

I often find myself talking about a movie’s potential. Does something live up to its potential? Did a given picture have any to begin with? When I first heard about The Martian, it struck me as a movie with a strong potential…to be completely god awful. Let’s review the facts.

Anybody who has watched a movie over the last twenty years knows that setting a story on Mars is a kiss of death. Matt Damon, though a capable actor, has been in some truly uninspiring roles of late. Similarly, Ridley Scott is just as likely to be abysmal as he is brilliant – leaning more toward the former than the latter. Pair this with an unartfully written self-published novel as the source material and anyone can be forgiven for sucking in an anxious breath when hearing about The Martian. When the time came for me to watch The Martian, all of its baggage (mostly labeled Prometheus, Interstellar, and Elysium) evaporated within the first five minutes.

The Martian delivers pretty much everything it promises in the trailer. Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney. During a misadventure with a sandstorm of Mad Max proportions, Watney’s crew leaves him stranded on Mars. Therein, Damon’s character has to survive on a dead world while NASA and JPL figure out a way to rescue him from a distance of twelve light minutes. And how does our hero survive nearly two years isolated on the red planet, plagued with shortages of power, food, water, and air? Through science! Maybe not perfect science, but science that’s good enough for Kerbal Space Program, and if it’s good enough for KSP it’s good enough for you.

As the “stranded person” trope goes, The Martian thankfully leans more toward Apollo 13 than Castaway. This spares the audience watching Matt Damon embarking upon a slow descent into madness. Astronaut Watney’s video journals, which one might rightly assume to be part of a NASA mission to Mars, are more than narrative sign posts and short primers for those who don’t get the science of Mars. These near-violations of the fourth wall inject a bit of humanity into the character. And a lack of humanity is exactly why most other “hard science” space movies fail.

Writers and directors tend to get fixated on the idea of portraying astronauts as consummate professionals (notwithstanding Anne Hathaway in Interstellar, who is the worst astronaut ever). While this might be true to form, straight laced and squared jawed professionals make for really boring and really alienating movie characters. So when Mark Watney tells mission control to go fuck themselves, the character might be moving away from what’s appropriate for an astronaut, but the film is giving the audience what they need to form a rapport with their protagonist. In this moment, we see the very soul of The Martian, and it’s not science; it’s comedy.

Real astronauts aren’t funny; astronauts are triple PhD holding Air Force colonels with an IQ of 190. To wit, the astronaut is neither you nor I. We are not good enough to be astronauts. Mark Watney, however, isn’t beyond making a poop joke. Watney complains about disco. Watney likes Iron Man. As an audience, we can watch The Martian and see just a little bit of ourselves in Mark Watney. In this moment of recognition the movie finds its ability to play to a very broad audience.

And if all that isn’t enough for you, the Martian has a really strong supporting cast. Kristen Wiig nails it as NASA’s head of public relations. Donald Glover throws Community’s Troy Barnes on the trash heap, embracing a physics nerd who would put Sheldon Cooper to shame. Jeff Daniels still seems like he’s playing that guy from The Newsroom instead of the director of NASA, but his dialogue makes up for uninspired acting. The movie may be called The Martian but it is very much an ensemble production.

Everything comes together for The Martian. Mars is depicted as a foreboding but beautiful place. Matt Damon shows us an astronaut who successfully balances being professional with being human. Screenwriter Drew Goddard tones down the engineering focus in the source material to something that still feels authentic to the audience. And most importantly, Ridley Scott doesn’t muck everything up with an attempt to be overly self-important and introspective. The Martian is a near-future space rescue movie that is grounded in the problems of physics and congressional appropriations to NASA. It is as technical as it needs to be, conceding the laws of physics to cinematic convenience only when absolutely necessary. Dare I say, the curse of the Mars movie has been broken.


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Movie Review: Interstellar

The chances are good that many of you will disagree with this review. In a world where Guardians of the Galaxy is 91% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, I’m sure Christopher Nolan’s clumsy and ill-paced homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey will seem like Shakespeare to some. I guess we just want different things out of movies.

I don’t know why so many critics and movie goers line-up to defend this movie. Perhaps, people are afraid to criticize Interstellar for fear of being seen as stupid. But after enduring nearly three agonizing hours of wibble posing as “hard” science fiction, I feel no such fear. Interstellar is a largely dumb movie. One might only be tricked into thinking Interstellar is smart because it manages to puff up its chest and oversell itself in the opening act.

In deference to what the movie does right, the first thirty minutes are reasonably interesting. Mr. Nolan envisions a chilling vision for the future; it’s a world where food scarcity is the consequence of a new form of bacteria that sucks up oxygen and produces nitrogen in its wake. Human labour and ingenuity are redirected toward practical affairs, like farming. History books are rewritten to facilitate a world where we look inward rather than upward. All of this is quite interesting. However, I hasten to call it good storycraft as Nolan takes half an hour to do what I’ve summed up in a paragraph. Space may be vast, but my patience is not.

Pacing, or a lack thereof, becomes one of the things which utterly saps the life out of this movie. Where most movies have a three act structure, Interstellar has five acts. Two of them are worth watching. The other three are a monument to the fact that nobody involved in the production would dare take a red pen to Mr. Nolan’s bloated script. In so much as Interstellar wants to be a story about astronauts facing an impossible task on the other side of the galaxy, it’s also firmly rooted in a human interest story set on Earth. Where the latter should have been left on the editing room floor, Nolan makes the story on Earth run parallel to the story in space. While some, no doubt, found the leitmotif of cause, effect, and causality to be clever and thoughtful, I found it little more than a circle jerk.

And I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking that I’m about to get on my high horse about the time dilation planet. I’m not. I could easily spend a few hundred words breaking down the insane pseudo-science Nolan uses to justify this sequence. But I’d rather not insult the intelligence of my readers, who no doubt saw the pseudo-science for the garbage that it is. Instead, I’ll speak to the cause behind the cause. The time dilation planet is the inelegant solution to the problem of aging up the astronaut McConaughey’s one-dimensional pre-teen daughter character into a two-dimensional Deus ex Machina. You’ll pardon my loud farting noise.

Likewise, Interstellar rates as an unsophisticated affair as it is entirely predictable. The screenplay merits a modification of the Chekhov’s Gun rule: if a greaseball astronaut asks about using a black hole to travel back in time in the second act, then said greaseball astronaut must use the black hole to travel back in time in the fourth act. Mr. Nolan, I know nobody else will say this to you, so I will. If the writing is as obvious a landing signal officer on an aircraft carrier, then you’re not really foreshadowing, you are telegraphing. Telegraphing is boring.

Though it is de rigueur to place Interstellar alongside 2001, I won’t insult the late Stanley Kubrick’s work with any further comparisons. Quite honestly, the more accurate analogue for Interstellar is Disney’s 1979 homage to pseudo-science, The Black Hole. Both movies feature sentient robots, mad scientists, and a weakly written ending that presumes to send people “into” a black hole; wherein, something greater than being crushed to death awaits intrepid American astronauts. Interstellar is not high-concept, nor is it a thoughtful art film. Interstellar is, quite simply, a bad movie. Pretty as it may be to behold, it’s got nothing going on between the ears.


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Movie Review: Space Battleship Yamato 2199: Odyssey of the Celestial Ark

Though it’s been a long time since I last wrote about Space Battleship Yamato 2199, one thing hasn’t changed about this modern reboot of the 70s cult-classic: the adventures of the Yamato always leave me with plenty to think about.

The Yamato franchise is a study in Japan rewriting its popular history through popular culture. In the wake of a humiliating surrender at the end of the Second World War – that is to say humiliating to the Japanese national ethos – the series is an attempt to portray the Japanese military as an active instrument, absent problematic notions of empire building. Hence, the ultimate symbol of Japanese imperialism is literally retrofitted as a vessel of salvation for the entire Earth.

While those undertones persist within the 2199 reboot, the first season proved itself capable of rising above the source material. For example, characters aboard the Yamato exist outside of 1970s gender norms. The politics of the Earth Defence Forces offer some nuance and room for intrigue. Most importantly, the Gamilans, once simple space Nazis, are reformed into a people victimized by Dessler’s absolutism and the monstrous nature of his sycophants. This tone toward something more mature and less jingoistic is what has me so befuddled with Odyssey of the Celestial Ark. Where Earth and Gamilas continue to be more than they used to be, I have reason to believe the series might be playing a new game of racism and xenophobia with the Gatlantians.

Odyssey of the Celestial Ark is set between the penultimate and final episode of SBY 2199’s first season. Having made peace with the Gamilans, the Yamato speeds toward Earth, carrying with it the planet’s salvation. All is well and good until the Gatlantians, who old-school Yamato fans will remember as the White Comet Empire, ruin everybody’s day.

This is where things get a bit weird. On the one hand, the movie is doing everything it can to add depth to Terran and Gamilan characters, alike. We see Kodai as both military commander and diplomat. The movie even goes so far as to address the great unanswered question of the first season: how can Humans and Gamilans have the same DNA? Enter the progenitor race trope.

It turns out that the last of the Jirellians are squatting on a relic belonging to ancient species who seeded the galaxy. Aboard this ark, Humans, Gamilans, and Jirellians come together in peace before launching the last survivors of Jirel into the depths of space in search of a new home. Amid all this thoughtful coming together we witness the weirdness of the Gatlantians.

OCA appears to be trying a little too hard to cast the Gatlantians as barbarians at the gates. The Gatlantian commander, General Dagam, is clad in animal pelts, carries a comically large sword, and lets his command station be cluttered up with a host of food and wine. Oh and did I mention the Fu Manchu mustache? Space Battleship Yamato 2199 has worked hard to shift away from the Gamilans as simple space Nazis and Humans as the unrepentant good guys. So why do I feel like the Gatlantians are being offered up as shallow space Mongols?

Perhaps it is Dagam talking about his super weapon as the fruits of Gamilan slave labour, like what the Mongols used to do. Maybe it’s the fact that Gatlantian military supremacy is based on beating their foes at mobility-based ranged combat, a tactic similar to those employed by Mongolian horse archers. It could be the obvious excesses aboard Dagam’s ship, as if to capture a stately pleasure-dome, compared to the lean efficacy reflected in the Gamilan navy. Even if I’m reading the racial dialogue incorrectly, there’s still something very banal about the way Dagam represents a mustache-twirling foe.

Even in consideration of the Gatlantian weirdness, the movie addresses what I thought was missing from the end of the first season. First, the audience gets a greater sense of Kodai’s capacity as Okita’s successor. Second, we see another point of entry into a post-Dessler Gamilas, likely framing a few key Gamilans for the second season. Third, the resolution to the genetic mystery of Gamilas and Earth is smart enough to simultaneously cement existing friendships and foreshadow dissent between the hardliners on Earth and Gamilas. Overall, Odyssey of the Celestial Ark is a strong, if imperfect interlude between the first and second season.


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Movie Review: Infini

Someone I follow on twitter recently quipped that the science fiction section of Netflix is a lot like the lone sci-fi shelf at Blockbuster in the 90s: there are ten movies that you’ve heard of, and the rest of the selection is low-to-mid budget crap.

Though my base instinct is to drop a deuce on Infini, it’s far from the worst movie I’ve ever seen. In fact, I admire its attempt at being both science fiction and horror. The acting is capable, though much of the dialogue is as bland as a Keynesian’s essay on deficit spending. I may have even liked this movie, were it not for the fact that I live in a universe where The Thing and Event Horizon exist. It’s not just that I’ve seen this movie before; I’ve seen done better before, and that’s a hard thing for any movie to measure up against.

Directed and written by Shane Abbess, Infini is a story about a deep space search and rescue team (stop me if you’ve heard this one before). After arriving on the space station Infini, the crew finds a lone survivor and a kind of alien life that drives humans into a killing frenzy (no, really, stop me if you’ve heard this one). The movie stars a band of Australian actors, none of whom are particular remarkable in their performance, and Luke Hemsworth, who has probably spent most of his professional career being referred to as “that other Hemsworth.”

What really stands out about this movie is the way it feels like something that wanted to be one story but turned into another through the magic of revisions and rewrites. The first act makes a big deal of the lousy economy of the 23rd century. It’s an economy so bad, citing 95% of the Earth’s population living below the poverty line, it strains suspension of disbelief right out of the gate. These dire economic straits motivate people to take high-risk jobs in space using a digitization and teleportation technology called slipstream.

Credit where credit is due, the opening scene effortlessly sells slipstream as the story’s central point. The sales pitch is so good I was willing to forgive the impossible economics of the future. Wave one of expendable extras illustrate the danger of slipstream through the necessity of invasive medical examinations. The second wave talks about soldiers using “dirty” slipstream jumps for their own ends. All of these concepts struck this critic as reasonably interesting. Once the story finally gets under way, they amount to absolute dick.

Slipstream, bad economies, and space soldiering are little more than set dressing for that most tired of archetypes, the dad who wants to do right by his wife and kid. Snore. The balance of the movie is straight-up survival horror with just a soupcon of madness, and a hint of space monsters. Again, it’s nothing awful, but it’s certainly nothing innovative. There’s no attempt to do something new with horror in space. In some ways, the movie plays it decidedly safe e.g. the set construction.

For some reason, the space station’s computers are running on MS-DOS. Ostensible protagonist Whit Carmichael (Daniel MacPherson), explains he’s reworked the station to operate with ASCII commands. Setting aside the fact that a computer in the 23rd century running on Dos makes about as  much sense as running Windows 3.1 on Charles Babbage’s difference engine, it also makes for a very mundane – if accessible – environment. Perhaps Mr. Abbess is trying to capture a retro-futuristic sensibility within his world, something akin to the Nostromo of Alien. Alas, Alien got there first and Infini’s design offers little wonder in its sense of place.

Despite all this, the movie ends on a reasonably interesting note. Once the survival story whittles down the cast of unremarkable human props to a single person, there’s a moment of humanity recognized in something alien. Nobody should mistake this revelation for Star Trek’s Utopian notion that we are all alien to each other. Nevertheless, it is an ounce of thoughtfulness in a movie which is otherwise a wholly paint by number affair. I wouldn’t say the ending redeems the movie, but it does offer a mild reward for an audience dedicated to sticking things out.

While Infini is not absent potential, it’s a light year away from living up to any of its greatness. It could have been good, it might have been original, yet it is neither. Though I won’t call it terrible, I can’t come up with any good reasons why people need to see this movie.


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Movie Review: Fantastic Four

Despite a generally decent first eight minutes, there’s no way to defend Josh Trank’s utterly unnecessary Fantastic Four reboot/origin story. It’s a marvel, pun intended, to witness a super hero movie so utterly failing to fizz. The inability of Fantastic Four’s component parts to come together in any meaningful way yields a movie so bereft of humanity and genuine emotion that my first reaction upon walking out of the theatre was to ask twitter for a hug.

This iteration of the Fantastic Four is at once a self-serious attempt to reboot a near fifty-year-old franchise and a means of spinning Marvel’s first family for a younger audience. We know the wee ones are the movie’s target demographic as it features a cast of late 20- and early 30-somethings playing teenagers. Despite this fixation on youth, the catalyst for the Fantastic Four’s origin story is a dour, hard science fiction enterprise. One can only assume Mr. Trank, in all his wisdom, thinks children are not able to imagine beyond a lazy Nolan-esque worldview built upon cynicism and grey tones.

Things get no better once the movie gets under way. A significant part of the first act – the part where the team should visibly bond and come together – shakes out as a montage sequence of Reed Richards et al building a quantum teleportation device. One need not be possessed by the ghost of Stanley Kubrick to know that first act montages are not typically a marker of a strong production. Yet the real problem here is the super power McGuffin, itself. And no, this isn’t butthurt out of a loyalty to canon.

Comic book canon does, however, tell us something about the story’s expectations for its audience. Buying into the idea of cosmic radiation giving someone powers, and not lymphoma, is an innately innocent act. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee wanted their readers to believe in the fantastic. A tonal shift toward hard science fiction not only invalidates innocence and wonder as the core emotions of the story, but likely proved boring as hell for test audiences. Thus the first act montage. Thus the pointlessness of retconning the source material into something more serious while still working with a younger audience.

Would that it didn’t get any worse, one might be able to present this movie in some scant shred of a positive light. Alas, it gets worse.

Where most movies are divided into a three act structure, there’s no such conventional pacing to the new Fantastic Four. There’s a protracted first act, wherein manly men do science and women work quietly in the corner (kudos for capturing the worst elements of the 60s source material). Then there’s the second act where everybody has powers and spends five minutes fighting Victor von Doom in another dimension. Then the movie’s over. The bumper material between the first and second act consists of Reed Richards breaking out of a government holding cell and Reed Richards getting captured by the government after a cut to black and “one year later” card is flashed. I suppose we could call that a second act, but it’s more like a narrative rope bridge: flimsy and barely able to carry the weight of its burdens.

All this and I haven’t even said a word about the acting. Who knew I would ever miss Ioan Gruffudd and Michael Chiklis selling Tim Story’s garbage for all they were worth? At least those films had a generally solid cast (not you, Jessica Alba) and the acting offered a bit of respite from the uninspired writing. This iteration holds no such luxury. Miles Teller is as bland as banana paste. Michael B. Jordan phones it in, likely because he knew no amount of acting would outshine the “controversy” of his casting (thanks again, racist assholes of the world). Kate Mara stares lifelessly into the camera, as she so often does on House of Cards. And Jamie Bell looks as perpetually nonplussed as I felt in trying to figure out why Ben Grimm is even in this movie.

With the Baxter Building, the very icon of the Fantastic Four, retconned into Franklin Storm’s School for the Gifted, a wholly owned subsidiary of DARPA, there’s no joy to be found anywhere within this movie. It is the worst sort of franchise bait. Like all films preoccupied with building market share rather than telling a story, Josh Trank and credited co-writers Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg presume to pass off back story for actual plot. This “creative” triumvirate appears to have forgotten that some back stories are more complex than others. In this case, an hour and forty minute origin story is a crystal clear indictment of the movie’s piss poor vision and/or the director’s inability to keep the production from going off the rails.

Let this serve as a lesson. The screenplay is not ready to see the light of day when 80% of a movie’s plot can be summarized with the theme song from a cornball Saturday morning cartoon.


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Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

As you read these words, assuming you’re reading them on the day I post this review, it has been a little more than a week since I screened Mad Max: Fury Road. Between seeing the movie and writing about it – because gods forbid I want some time to chew on a movie as visually resplendent as Fury Road – I’ve seen the internet go through three discourse shifts on the film.

The first was, “Holy shit this is the most feminist action movie ever.”

The second was, “Check your privilege, Mad Max is still the product of the patriarchal movie industry, thus it’s the fruit of a poisonous tree and you are wrong to like it.”

The third was a reaction against the second. It generally boils down to Loki’s Paradox and defining feminism to either prove or disprove the value of a person’s view on feminism and Mad Max.

Why do I bring up this meta-narrative in something titled a review? Primarily to illustrate Fury Road’s evocative power. When was the last time an action movie generated this level of actual discussion? The collective reaction to Mad Max demonstrates exactly what movies are supposed to do: make us talk, argue, and (eventually) consider other opinions. This post-curtain dialogue is what action movies have been missing for ages.

It’s hard to tell where Fury Road fits into the Mad Max timeline. Instead of wading into the various fan theories and parsing every single visual clue within the film, I think it’s enough to say Fury Road is very much in dialogue with The Road Warrior. Much like The Road Warrior, Fury Road is a story about survival amid the end of the world. Unlike TRW, which explores survival as an almost black-and-white conflict between survivors clinging to civilization and the bandits who would tear them down, Fury Road leans more toward a visual study into the chaos and mythology of the apocalypse.

George Miller’s current masked “evil” demagogue is Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe is far from the image of physical strength we saw in The Great Humungus. This bloated and cancerous albino evokes the Baron Harkonnen in David Lynch’s Dune as a nearest visual comparison. He is a rotting body desperate to hold on to life and produce a healthy offspring.

Joe is emblematic of the decaying world in which the film is set. Likewise, Joe’s warboys, the fanatic and suicidal devotees of the religion Joe has built around huffing chrome paint, V8 engines, and glorious death, are all sickly beings. To these people, possessed of a “half-life”, Joe is the All Father, presiding over an impenetrable fortress of green space and fresh water. While the details connected to Joe’s mythological system are entirely visual, they nonetheless convey the truths of this world and our world; when life is miserable, people will turn to religion for its promise of a better world to come.

As for Max (Tom Hardy), the movie’s titular character, his function principally speaks to Fury Road’s desire to up-end the audience’s expectations of an action film. There’s little reason to believe Max (Tom Hardy) is the protagonist, let alone the point-of-view character in this movie. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) catalyzes the action when she uses Joe’s War Rig to lead the former’s wives from their gilded cage. Max only becomes involved in this story as a blood donor strapped to the grill of one of Joe’s pursuit vehicles. He is, quite literally, along for the ride.

Which brings us to Joe’s brides. Joe keeps his wives in a modified bank vault. The imagery combined with Joe’s reaction to their escape frames the women as property. Before the first act is done, the wives come into their own as individuals who have (mostly) rejected the system around them. Yet this transformation invites the audience to question if their and Furiosa’s motivations are truly righteous. The wives, and by extension, the audience, might be wholly naive to the world around them.

Everything within Joe’s dominion mobilizes living beings as components of a greater whole. It would be simplistic to assume he does this out of malice. However it’s obvious Joe’s actions are the consequences of a world both burned and broken. While the wives may be Joe’s possessions, they are also represent the best chance for making healthy humans amid the wretches of the wastes. Pair this with Joe’s role as patriarch of a religion that encourages suicide (i.e. thinning out the non-viable genetic material) and perhaps the seeming antagonist of this movie is a thesis on the brutal necessities required to keep humanity alive without the trappings of civilization.

This is the strength of Fury Road. In a world gone mad, it eschews the temptation to reduce humanity to the simplest possible components. There are no binaries of good and evil in Fury Road. All of the characters think themselves righteous. None are so one-dimensional as to be written off as maniacal supervillains or chronic do-gooders.

Likewise, the movie is neither a pro-feminist piece nor an anti-male manifesto. Fury Road is a visual story. Visual stories, be they a single painting or 216,000 frames of study into entropy and decay, are not meant to be sortied into simple dialectics. Rather, they are conversations waiting to happen. To understand Fury Road, a viewer must accept the first lesson of the wastes: one does not survive without compromise.

In sum, Fury Road is a gonzo and over-the-top testament to the power of physical sets, working props, visual storytelling, and contemporary mythmaking. Beyond all the high-octane explosions – which are many and glorious – is a richly developed and highly nuanced world. George Miller does a first rate job of showing everything about this world while telling the audience almost nothing. It is both a turn-off-your-brain action movie, and a deeply evocative piece of storytelling.

It is the type of action movie audiences sorely deserve.


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Movie Review: X-Men Days of Future Past

I’d like to take a moment to dedicate this review to my buddy, John Flynn, who thinks that I “don’t really like movies”.

I do like movies. Why else would I write about them if I didn’t think they were a worthwhile and important medium? Though to look through my recent movie reviews, I can see how a person might think I feel otherwise.

Here’s the thing with my review setup. Since I don’t live in Toronto or Vancouver, I don’t get press access to movies in the same way I do video games. So I’m left with one of two options, pay my own money to queue up like an idiot to watch something on day one, so my review has a chance at being timely (except it won’t be since most critics attached to newspapers or bigger websites have movie reviews prepped and ready to go the moment the movie opens) or wait until I get it on-demand or on Netflix. By that point, a review praising a movie is yesterday’s news. However, a review eviscerating a movie remains cathartic and entertaining, if not entirely educational.

Nevertheless, allow me review to X-Men: Days of Future Past as proof that I don’t hate everything.

Of course, I don’t want the world assuming I’ve gone soft. In the grand cheme of things, I would not hold up Days of Future Past is an example of a good movie. Some absolutely piss-poor choices went into the script; however, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Days of Future Past is the cinematic adaptation of one of the most important arcs in the X-Men comic canon. Because of this, I suspect there was some pretty considerable pressure on Bryan Singer to not make a mess of the movie. In short, he didn’t do a half-bad job of it. At the same time, I don’t think he and his writers did a particularly good job in adapting the story. Forget about the comic books, there are plot holes in this movie which don’t even make sense in terms of the story’s internal consistency.

The story itself, which almost everybody knows by this point if they know anything about X-Men, is thus: in the future machines rise up against humanity (sigh, here we go again). Though the Sentinels were originally programmed to hunt down mutants, they took to hunting down humans capable of breeding mutants as well as any mutant sympathizers. This sees the last remnants of the X-Men and Brotherhood of Mutants plotting to send the consciousness of Wolverine back into the 70s version of himself so he can stop an assassination that catalyzed the aforementioned robot dominated future.

After the absolute nightmare that was X-Men: The Last Stand, the blasé affair of X-Men First Class, and the unmentionable plop of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I had all but sworn off these movies. Morbid curiosity got the better of me, and, against all odds, I found myself enjoying Days of Future Past. Granted, I wasn’t so wrapped up I didn’t find time to stop to complain to twitter about Professor Xavier trolling Wolverine with his line about “not having his powers in the 70s”. The plot gimmick makes “sense” when we find that Xavier has been abusing the forerunner of the “mutant cure” from the third movie as a way of escaping his wheelchair, but it’s one of many examples where the script fancies itself as more clever than it’s capable of being. Quite honestly, James McAvoy shooting smack into his wheelchair-bound eyeballs would have made for a more believable reason why Xavier didn’t have his powers for the movie’s first half.

The movie’s salvation is its acting. Despite the shaky storytelling, the dialogue is oddly compelling. Even though the likes of Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, and particularly Michael Fassbender are positively chewing the scenery whenever they are on camera, with their protracted monologue-length conversation set-pieces, I wanted more. Everything about the performances clicked to elevate a wholly mediocre screenplay into something I could get through with a minimum of being pulled out of the moment.

Sure, it makes no god damned sense at all that Magneto can slip some rebar into a polymer based Sentinel and somehow reprogram it, but I don’t give a toss because Michael Fassbender is selling me on it. Hugh Jackman’s abs had more CG and practical effects than any other part of the movie; does it make me launch into an essay about male power fantasies? Nope. It makes me laugh as Jackman delivers his one-liners like he’s been taking smart-ass lessons from Spider-Man. And I won’t even try to describe the wacko majesty of Evan Peters’ Pietro Maximoff helping Xavier and Beast navigate an Ocean’s 11-style prison break to spring Magneto from the Pentagon.

This is Days of Future Past in a nutshell. It’s not very great adaptation of a pretty excellent comic arc that is wholly redeemed by its acting. This is an odd moment for me as I don’t often encounter movies where actors can save weak stories. Nevertheless, here it is. Now if only I could get a spin-off movie of Erik Lehnsherr: Nazi Hunter, I think all would be right and proper with the X-Men franchise.