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.


Mary Poppins Returns

August 22, 2019

I love both Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, but they couldn’t save it.

This movie tries so hard. So very hard. Like, the musical numbers all line up to musical numbers in the first one:  Here’s the uplifting song about household chores! Here’s the one where we fall into the animated world and dance with penguins! Here are the cheerful working class dudes singing about how much they love their dangerous and debilitating jobs! I generally like musicals and singing and dancing but I got to a point where I wished they hadn’t tried so hard.

And the dead mother thing comes back. The family is in trouble because the mother has died and everything is now falling apart. This trope keep happening because it’s an easy, lazy way to begin a story with angst and drama. And as pointed out in a FB comment, it’s always the mother who dies because, conventionally, the mother is the one holding everything together, caretaker for both the children and the father. If the father died, the family would continue to function. The mother dies? Chaos. We saw this in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Beauty and the Beast, and so on. This is lazy, cliche storytelling dependent on a lot of unexamined stereotypes.

There’s another angle, I think:  Mary Poppins Returns needed to have adult Jane as part of the story. Writers often don’t seem to know how to make two adult women part of a story like this. (Mary Poppins isn’t really a woman, is she? She’s an Elemental. A Wizard.) If we had Jane and the mother (do we ever hear the Banks children’s mother’s name in this?  Like, at all?  See, mothers aren’t actually characters, they’re props.) would the story have enough to do for both of them?  The same thing happened in Maleficent:  Maleficent becomes Aurora’s mother figure, and then her bio-mother dies tragically halfway through the film, which was not part of the original Sleeping Beauty story. I think because the movie didn’t know what to do with two mother figures.

You know what would be interesting? Figuring out how to write two mother figures because it isn’t conventional and doesn’t rely on cliches.

And another thing… The original Mary Poppins a) Didn’t need to kill off the mother at the start and b) Had a clear message:  family is important and maybe you ought to pay attention to your kids once in a while.

What’s the message here?

Michael (the boy from the first movie, now a widower with three precocious children) is freaking useless. He screws up several times, in pretty big ways — mortgaging the house, falling behind on payments, and then sort of forgetting that he has this big inheritance and then losing the paper that proves he has this big inheritance. Sure, I guess the evil banker is evil for hiding evidence of the inheritance. But Michael I think is supposed to work in finance, and he doesn’t know how to handle these things? He’s just useless. And then, he is rewarded for screwing up.  No matter what happens, the cosmos will conspire fix it all because this is a movie designed to reassure the middle class that everything is a-okay!

Like, the city’s downtrodden working class, represented by the lamp lighters, will come together and risk their lives to ensure that he gets his massive inheritance so that he can pay off his mortgage?

Like, that actually happened? I dunno. It was all so weird.

The very best part of the movie was at the end, with a sudden appearance by Angela Lansbury and her distinctive voice. It was so wonderful to see her. They were all in the park with balloons instead of kites. But still.


Tarantino is getting soft.

I mean that in the best possible way. This movie has so much heart. It’s about second chances, a love of Hollywood, and a love of actors and who they are and what they do.

After making two westerns, Tarantino tells a story about a couple of guys who make westerns, who gave their youths to Hollywood and didn’t get a whole lot in return. Oh, and one of them lives next door to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski in 1969.

**Obligatory spoiler warning. I don’t say what happens but I imply it, and it’s really hard to tell what’s giving away too much on this one.**

I have a friend speculating about whether anyone under thirty will get the references, will know what this is about and what’s going to happen. In my group of three who went to see this, we all pinged to appearance of the Manson Family at different times. For me, as soon as the crowd of willowy hippie girls appeared, dumpster diving and singing sweetly, I knew.  I spent the next three hours in a state of growing dread.

That thing Tarantino does in his movies? That leisurely, excruciating pacing where people are talking and nothing is happening and it’s taking so long but you know, you just know something terrible is about to happen? Probably the best example is early in Inglourious Basterds, when the Nazi officer just keeps talking and the whole time you’re wondering if he knows about the Jewish family hiding under the floor or not.  Tarantino does this to some extent, scene by scene, in all his movies.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — he extends this technique to the entire movie. The whole thing is a leisurely portrait of almost-washed-up actor Rick Dalton and his stuntman turned personal assistant Cliff Booth. About halfway through, Cliff has a run-in with the Manson Family at the ranch. It’s filmed like a western, and it’s creepy and sinister and awful. And Cliff knows this gang is seriously bad news and gets the hell out. Then, months later…

The film flips the goddamn table. My god. I spent three hours sure I knew what was going to happen, and then… I can tell you the instant I realized I didn’t know what was going to happen anymore. It’s gorgeous.

This is all on purpose, by design. Sure, you could cut out a lot of the dialog, the long drives out of the Valley, the self-indulgent interludes. But then it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie, and the massive catharsis when that tension breaks and the blood starts flying and the flame throwers come out wouldn’t be the same.

I think my favorite thing this movie does, though, is humanize Sharon Tate. For fifty years she’s been the victim of this lurid awful crime and nothing else. Here, she gets this big long sequence where she can’t resist grinning up at the theater marque with her name on it. She talks her way in to see the film, and delights in the reactions of the audience to her performance.  This is a woman who loves movies, loves being in them. She’s super relatable and it’s great spending time with her. Margot Robbie’s big grin through this is wonderful and heartbreaking, because you know…you think you know…what’s going to happen to her.

But like I said, this is a movie about second chances.

Now, I want the annotated version.


The Space Between Us

July 25, 2019

The Space Between Us:  I was aware of this film when it came out because once again, it vaguely resembles the plot of one of my recent novels, Martians Abroad, i.e. kid born on Mars comes to Earth, chaos ensues. (Like with Voices of Dragons and How to Train Your Dragon, which came out around the same time and are both about a world where humans and dragons don’t get along and then one young human meets a dragon and learns to ride him… seriously, this stuff will drive you nuts if you let it.)

I never got around to watching it because there wasn’t any real buzz about it and too many other things were going on. Stuff, you know.

So I tried watching it.  I turned it off after ten minutes, when the mother dies in childbirth. The mother who is the only woman on this historic mission to Mars and who nobody calls by her title which is “mission commander” but everyone just calls her “miss,” and then it turns out she gets knocked up by accident, because I guess women don’t know how to prevent pregnancy in the near future or something, and I guess the flight surgeons on a very important historic space mission wouldn’t bother to actually give her a medical exam right before the mission, and then Hollywood still thinks the most interesting mother is a dead one. Because it gives the main character angst, don’t you know.

I turned it off. Everything in this was just so dumb. Then I lay in bed trying to fall and sleep and thought, And I bet it turns out that the obnoxious space genius tech guru played by Gary Oldman is the father.

So this morning I read the wikipedia synopsis, and I’m right, he is the father, and the kid comes to Earth to look for him, because the only thing more interesting than a dead mother is a kid looking for his father. And the rest of the movie appears to continue to be really dumb.

I’m so proud of myself for actually turning off a movie when it was clear what direction we were going. Saved two hours there.

Instead, I watched The Last Starfighter for the twenty millionth time , and this time what made me really happy is how supportive everyone is of Alex. Maggie never gets mad at him for playing the Starfighter game. All the people in the trailer park actually want him to leave and do great things. They may not understand the game but they’re all really excited when he beats the record.

It’s just so nice, you know?


Summer update

July 23, 2019

It’s that point in the month where I realize I’d better get going on all the things I said I was going to finish by the end of the month.

A couple of reminders:

The Jean Cocteau Cinema has signed books by me for sale.

My long review of the film Tolkien, and mini-critique of the genre of Idyllic English Schoolboys Do Things, is up at Lightspeed.

I’m behind on movies. I don’t even know what’s showing, which isn’t like me at all.

TV? I’m trying to catch up on last year’s season of Supergirl, that’s how far behind I am. And guys, I gotta tell you, it’s a slog. The standard 23 episode season isn’t really designed to be binged, and feels interminable after the short streaming seasons. It’s like you need that whole week between episodes to forget just how bad it all is, but when you watch episodes back to back, all you see is how bad it is.

I still like the show’s positive ethos. I love that it has rooms full of professional, sharp women solving problems. But holy cow there are times when all these characters are dumb as bricks. The entire plot is built on characters keeping stupid secrets from each other for stupid reasons. There’s a point where Kara is explaining why she can’t tell Lena she’s Supergirl, and I’m thinking, “Lena is literally the only person in that room who doesn’t know, how the hell does this make any sense.”

And the heavy-handed “issue” episodes are groaningly, agonizingly bad. Like, fine, include issues. Have ripped-from-the-headlines stories, sure. But having the characters deliver lectures cribbed from FB memes? Having deep important issues suddenly be relevant for all of ten minutes and then never mentioned again?  It’s painful. Just stop.

I think for next season I’m going to watch all the DC crossover episodes and skip the rest.

This is why it’s been really hard for me to find something to watch. Apparently my tolerance has bottomed out this summer.