Knives Out

December 2, 2019

I think what I like most about this, and part of why this film is getting such universal raves, is that it’s a throwback. It’s a really classic, traditional murder mystery. It’s a pre-CSI, ridiculous forensic technology dependent mystery. It’s an Agatha Christie, Midsomer Murders mystery with big personalities and family drama and a personable investigator from outside who arrives to comment on it all. Anyone can see the clues and piece together what happened just by looking, by listening. If you’re clever enough. I hesitate to call this “Hipster American Poirot.” But, well, there it is.

Much like we’ve been starved for uplifting superhero movies, I wonder if audiences have been starved for this.

The other reason the film’s getting raves is that there’s a lot more going on. There’s also a layer of very pointed social commentary about immigration and privilege and what kind of behavior people are willing to tolerate as long as their own status isn’t threatened. Daniel Craig’s detective, southern gentleman Benoit Blanc (Tell me he isn’t an American riff on Poirot. Go on.) is almost ridiculous (Poirot meets Columbo, just about — this film knows what it’s doing). But also like Poirot he picks the straightforward young woman amidst all the chaos to be his ally. Marta, the nurse who’s been taking care of Harlan Thrombey, whose mysterious death drives the plot, is the daughter of immigrants. She’s an outsider, too. And it’s her choices that matter in this.

The cast is phenomenal. That’s the main reason I went to see this. But what holds the movie up is the classic mystery structure, which comforts us that the truth is knowable and justice is possible.

 

snowpocalypse!

November 25, 2019

We’re due to get 18″ of snow overnight, so the area is in full-on snowpocalypse mode. Combine this with the usual Thanksgiving prep madness, and shopping for basics is kind of a no-go. Seriously, I almost had to duke it out with a woman for the last cans of kidney-health formula prescription dog food. Then she said she has a Great Dane and I’m all, here, have it all, Lily just needs, you know, a can or two.

So, I think Lily and I are set. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, here’s the long version of my very angry review of Ad Astra for Lightspeed. I really only get this angry when a film thinks it’s smart, and is so proud of how smart it is, when in fact it is dumber than a sack of bricks.

Rapid space baboons. Really.

 

Harriet

November 18, 2019

If America had saints, Harriet Tubman would be one of the foremost among them.

The film Harriet reminded me of a storybook I had about her when I was little, which means I think her story was probably where I first learned about slavery. That book is also where I learned about the North Star, moss on the trees, the Underground Railroad, all of it. It’s primarily a story about heroism and courage, so it took a little more time, and the work of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and so on, to get the full horrific story of slavery. But my first education came from Tubman’s story of resistance. And why haven’t there been more movies and TV shows about her? I mean really.

The film is pretty good. It’s uneven, I think. Some of that may be that it’s not quite the film I wanted — but it hints at a movie I really would have liked to see. Mostly, this is serious literary biopic, with all that that entails. And this is where I think it’s maybe a little bit cliche. All the scenes you expect, the heartfelt serious character moments, the standard 19th century serious historical score. This part of the film drags a bit.

But then there’s an action montage of Tubman’s activities with the Underground Railroad, with Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” playing over it. This segment is incredible, high energy, engaging, inspiring. I found myself wishing the film had done more of this, using modern music as a backdrop, going for a more impressionistic feel. Going for action and tension and immediacy. The story mostly focuses on Harriet, her emotions, her visions, her connections with her family, which were all important of course. But what if the movie as a whole had been framed as action/adventure rather than literary biopic?

I wanted the film to be more political. There’s a scene where Frederick Douglass is standing in the room. Like, that is clearly Frederick Douglass! But there’s no dialog from him, no interaction. He’s practically set dressing. I wanted more with the Underground Railroad. Harriet’s Civil War activities — she was a spy and personally led an expedition across enemy lines to free slaves — got all of about three minutes at the end of the film when really, that could have been its own movie. Those bits of engagement, where Harriet is out kicking ass like some action hero — because she freaking was one! — were the best, and I wanted more of that.

I’m glad I saw the film. But now I want a 20 episode TV show about Harriet during the war.

My historical re-enactment friends all agree the costumes were very good. Like, they got the fabric and drape right? And that’s hard to do.

 

two movies

November 4, 2019

It was a two movie weekend, one in theaters and one at home.

Terminator: Dark Fate. This was a lot of fun, and a return to form for a franchise that has gotten rather convoluted and unweildly. (Time travel, gah.)  This neatly cut through all that by being a direct sequel to Terminator 2 and ignoring everything else. This is Sarah Conner’s trilogy, and it feels like it was always meant to be this way.  Also manages to be super topical.  I’ll be doing a long review for Lightspeed, particularly in terms of Linda Hamilton’s/Sarah’s legacy as an iconic action hero. I will say this:  Schwarzenegger has mellowed delightfully, and while I wasn’t sure I really wanted him in this film, it turns out it was really nice seeing him return to this role one more time in a way that was satisfying.

The King.  This apparently had a limited release earlier in the year and is now on Netflix. This is a movie about Henry V.  More than that, it’s a completely revisionist version of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Once I figured out what was going on, I was astonished and completely drawn in. Guys, I love this film.  I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s like the filmmakers systematically addressed every point about the play that bugged them and then did it different. Like, Henry speaks fluent French because of course he would have.  Like, let’s say that women in political situations actually have useful observations and opinions about politics. Like, it wasn’t God and righteousness that won Agincourt, it was really good strategy that brilliantly utilized the English army’s particular strengths.  It’s also just a really well plotted and put together story. And cheeky as all get out, like there’s a moment when Falstaff just up and says, “I think the story is better this way, don’t you?” Zing.

And the fighting and battles and stuff is really good. Like, The Last Kingdom good, in that I think it should be required viewing for SCA folk. That stuff we do for fun on weekends? This is what it really looked like and it sucked rocks.

Timothée Chalamet plays Henry. He’s also playing Paul in the new Dune movie due out next year. I was not at all interested in a new Dune movie. Now, suddenly, I am, because of this actor.

 

Downton Abbey

September 30, 2019

I never watched Downton Abbey the TV show. Just never got around to it and then it was too much to catch up on. But I was persuaded to see the movie when I heard that King George V and Queen Mary make appearances. I have a proprietary interest in them, you see — George himself appeared in one of my Harry and Marlowe stories. He is, of course, Harry/Maud’s brother.

The movie definitely came across as fan service for the most devoted viewers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a beautiful film, if you like historic English countryside stuff, which I do. And because I’m me, here’s a bit of literary analysis for you:

I am intrigued at the idea of Tom Branson as a liminal character, occupying many opposing identities at once — high and low born, Irish and English, and so on. This is the Irish son-in-law, who married well above his station, was widowed, and now moves between all levels of society with ease, negotiates strange political situations, and generally remains unflustered through it all.  I think this makes him something of an audience surrogate:  he can be part of this highly stratified, socially rigid world, while also criticizing it. Like a modern audience he can enjoy it, while also being aware that it’s archaic and probably much lovelier in fiction than it ever was in reality.

He’s also very much the hero of the story without being the obvious Hero, if that makes sense. Like, the story clearly isn’t about him, it’s about the family, the staff, that dynamic, and so forth. But he saves multiple people in multiple ways over the course of things.  He’s the one person we can all unambiguously admire.

It’s a really fascinating dynamic.

 

Ad Astra

September 23, 2019

This movie is really not good, you guys.

I’m astonished and baffled at the good reviews this thing is getting, praising the acting and the heartfelt story. Because in fact this thing is a pile of cliches. An Olympus Mons-sized mountain of cliches and bad dialog and stiff acting and nonsensical story telling.

And what I really can’t figure out is why the glowing reviews refuse to mention the Rabid Space Baboons. It’s like, you can’t say that this is a good movie and also acknowledge that the scene with the Rabid Space Baboons happened so they’re just pretending like it didn’t happen.

But it did. And it was bad.

Long (hoo boy) review coming on Lightspeed in a month or so. Stay tuned.

 

movies on airplanes

August 29, 2019

I’m really liking this thing where every seat gets their own screen and you have hundreds of choices of what to watch, classics as well as newer stuff. The film library this trip included Casablanca! Even with all that, I only watched two films on airplanes the entire trip. One was a rewatch of Tangled because I needed warm fuzzies.

The other was Shazam!

This film looked ridiculous when the trailers ran. Then the reviews for it were pretty universally positive. So I finally gave it a whirl for myself.

This is great. Just great.

First off, it does that thing that the Marvel films do so well, which is you take a superhero movie skin and pull it over the structural frame of a different kind of story — political thriller, heist comedy, space opera, whatever. In this case, it’s kid fantasy. You know what I’m talking about, where a troubled kid gets access to some kind of fantasy portal/power/creature and then makes mistakes in the course of learning how to handle that responsibility and make his life better? It’s that. With superheroes.

It’s also a bit of a deconstruction of superheroes, but from a kid perspective. Like, these kids live in the DC universe, that’s made clear. (Collectibles? A fully authenticated smashed bullet that bounced off Superman’s own chest? OMG I wish I had thought of that.) So they live in a superhero universe and they’ve been thinking about what that means and they talk about it. It isn’t cynical and dark — it’s very practical. Like why wouldn’t you go to a real estate agent to try to find a superhero lair?

The actor playing Billy Batson, Asher Angel, which sounds like a superhero secret identity name now that I think about it, is really good, clear-eyed and earnest and troubled and all-in.

There’s an absolutely devastating character moment at the end of the second act that has nothing to do with superheroes and superpowers. But the moment completes Billy’s arc and makes the rest of the story possible. Everything is set up. And then there’s the rest of the kids he builds a family with —

But I say too much. And the post-credits scenes, oh my gosh…

I will say I’m getting really, really tired of the trope where a movie starts with a family in the car and the kid in the backseat and the car gets in a horrific wreck to set up a tragic backstory. There’s a mild twist this time. But still.

But yeah. Overall I liked this a lot. I’m now thinking that if the DC movies had started with this instead of rehashing Superman and Batman — going with second-string characters the way Marvel did — we’d have gotten a very different set of movies over the last few years.