Doctor Strange

November 7, 2016

The latest episode of my favorite show was just fine and will make many people happy.  I do have some things to say about it.

The thing I liked most about this was the envisioning of a fractal/clockwork universe that unfolds according to set patterns that express a great and surreal beauty, and that magic allows one to manipulate those patterns.  (And I really love how Strange’s journey through these surreal backdrops resemble Ant Man’s journey through the sub-atomic in the climactic scene of his film.  It’s all one universe.)  And yes, I did see it in 3-D even though I’m mostly set against it these days. (In the preview for The Great Wall, the Matt Damon Chinese monster adventure flick, the 3-D was so awful and muddy I never did a get a good look at the monsters.)  I had indication that the 3-D would be mostly worth it in this one, and it was, lending a great fractal depth to the folding, spiraling, and stacking effects that make up a big part of the set pieces.  Very pretty.

As for the rest, I still wish Oded Fehr has played the lead role.  Not that there’s anything wrong with Cumberbatch, except for the fact that he’s in everything.  But it did make this clearly yet another movie about a really special white guy who’s just so special and when the mystical masters who’ve been working at this their whole lives fail, he’ll save us, even though he’s only been doing it for maybe a year or so.  And the egotistic attitude — and the fast cars, and the belittling treatment of everyone — made him too much like Tony Stark.  We’ve seen all this before.

This is going to sound weird, but this was too easy.  I know this is an origin story and we want to get through it quickly to get the good stuff.  But really, Strange should have been waiting on the temple’s doorstep for five months, not five hours.  He should have been there with a begging bowl and a beard down to his knees before he was let in for training.  That’s commitment.  What’s so special about him that the Ancient One immediately shows him her powers and the secrets of the universe?  I know we have to move the plot along, but still.  I did like that Strange wasn’t immediately able to work magic.  But once he could, and once he shaved that trademark goatee, after that he’s memorizing Sanskrit and sneaking into the library and stealing ancient artifacts and back to his old ego trip.  The Ancient One kept reiterating that Strange needed to let go of his ego if he wanted to be a powerful sorcerer.  He never did.  Sure, he has a bad moment when he actually has to kill someone.  He shouts something about breaking his oath to save lives.  But what about all the patients he let suffer and die because he wouldn’t take their cases, because he didn’t want to fail?  There’s a section of this character arc that’s missing, I think.  Rather than letting go of ego, Strange’s ego — his willingness to use forbidden magic because he’s just that good — saves the world, and I’m not sure that’s the right message here.

(Unless, of course, that really is the message the movie intended, that surrendering the ego is bunk and overweening ego is actually a good thing.  I mean, the Ancient One drawing on the Dark Dimension is an act of ego.  No wonder Mordo, who has faithfully followed the Ancient One’s teachings and diligently subsumed his ego throughout, is pissed off at the end.  I can’t blame him.  Seriously which is it, let go of ego or not?)

What makes the movie are the supporting characters, the Ancient One and Mordo, played by Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, both tremendous actors who am I big big fans of.  I could watch them for hours and hours.  Despite my dissatisfaction with Strange’s character’s arc — and the whole cliche trope of the white guy saves everybody — these two made the movie a lot of fun.

When Iron Man 3 featured the Mandarin, it handled a potentially racist stereotype beautifully by confronting it head-on:  this character is a creation built to play on white fears about the “other.”  And so the movie’s Mandarin was literally a construct, an act, built to play on people’s fears.  It was great.  The white man who travels to the Far East to gain mystic wisdom and then wields that mystic wisdom better than the people who originated it?  That’s another problematic trope that we’ve been seeing since Victorian adventure stories.  And I wish the movie had found a way to confront, or at least address it, the way Iron Man 3 did.  One of the friends I went to see this with suggested that maybe Chiwetel Ejiofor should have played Doctor Strange and Cumberbatch could have been Mordo.  Hmm, now there’s an intriguing thought.


“So what are all these characters’ motivations?”

“The actors really wanted to be in a western.”

“Ah. Okay.”

The cavalcade of remakes continues! The reasons I go to see westerns are 1) spectacular vistas, 2) beautiful horses, and 3) rugged men in leather.  The Magnificent Seven remake has all of these. Plus heroes stepping through swinging saloon doors as the camera pans up, townfolk looking through windows and then quickly lowering the curtains, a comically evil robber baron, and a single named woman character with bottled red hair and a blouse that if it had been cut any lower they’d have had to change the movie’s rating.  In short, I found the whole thing rather tedious and chock full of cliches.  The vistas, horses, and rugged men in leather were not enough to distract me from the cliches.

About the only things recommending this are the performances of the leads, which is really why I went to see this particular western. Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, and Byung-Hun Lee were all great fun to watch, even if the story propping them up was this weird combination of that one episode of Firefly with the brothel and the Battle of Helms Deep. (The body count on this thing. Holy shit.)  Vincent D’Onofrio was inspired as a crazy doof of a mountain man. So yeah, go for the rugged men in leather. Stay for the rugged men in leather.

Mostly, I imagine this movie will be remembered for featuring what must be James Horner’s very last score. And it’s a good one, a distinctively Horner score, with a lot of evocative woodwinds and vocals. Made me sad.

So, there are good reasons to see this movie. But it’s not going to give you anything you don’t expect going into it.


Labyrinth — 30th Anniversary

September 16, 2016

This week I got to see Labyrinth on the big screen for the first time since it came out. At least, I’m assuming I saw it on the big screen when it was new — I actually don’t remember.  But I’m assuming I did since I’ve always, always loved it.

This is such a special movie. Not just because it’s simple and yet filled with depth, but it’s a collaboration between so many creative geniuses, who are clearly enamored with the project, and all that magic comes through.

I understand this is a cleaned up/restored version, and it shows.  The colors.  The lining of Jareth’s cloak is a deep sparkling blue, and I never noticed that before. The goblins’ eyes glow red when the light hits them right.  Much of the landscape of the Labyrinth has this sparkling sheen that’s been muted for 30 years, and now isn’t.  There’s apparently a 30th anniversary Blu-ray available. I might need that. (Even though I already own like three copies of this movie.)

And Jareth.  My God.  The audience cheered at his first appearance. He fills the screen.  But what struck me this viewing (besides the fact that I’m always seeing new and wonderful things in the movie) is how much that character is a warning.  This is a coming of age story.  A big part of it is Sarah leaving childhood behind and growing up. And yes, there’s a sexual component to that, and it’s almost entirely driven by Jareth.  But he’s a warning:  there are beautiful, beautiful men who will promise you the world.  But they steal babies. They’re not good.  Parse that sentence:  “Let me rule you and I will be your slave.”  Which is it? Can’t do both.  Yes, this beautiful powerful man is offering to give you all your dreams.  And it will only cost yourself, your own will.  Sarah, just entering adulthood, will recognize that, now.

I love Jareth because he shows us that villains can be beautiful.  They aren’t always ugly. They aren’t necessarily destructive.  But they’re still villains.  I got to thinking:  Is there anyone now who could play Jareth? Who could get across that sense of beauty and power and danger and charisma?  Has there ever been anyone who could play that character like Bowie did?  Hollywood has lots and lots of pretty boys.  But how many pretty, powerful men are there?  The mature fae?

(Pause for much weeping and grief for the loss of Bowie.)

Sarah is also a really great character, and another data point on how I think in many cases the 80’s did just fine with women characters.  She’s smart, driven, motivated, has agency, learns, and is generally wonderful.  At some point I also really want to talk about grief in the story — part of Sarah’s coming of age is moving through grief and letting go of her mother.  The film’s hints of this are so, so subtle — the clippings in her scrapbook and on her mirror show a beautiful dark haired woman who is clearly an actress, and I think the one who imparted a love of costumes and fantasy and make-believe to Sarah.  But she’s gone now.  Did she die? Did she leave?  We don’t know. But at the end of the film, Sarah starts pulling those clippings down and putting them away.  The movie never talks about this thread explicitly.  And I absolutely love that it never does.  I don’t think it’s the main part of the movie — it’s just one of many threads in Sarah’s life. I like that there’s a puzzle to figure out.

Gah, yes, I could talk about this movie for ages.  I loved that there were parents with kids in the theater. I hope it means that love for this movie will be around for a long long time.


Kubo and the Two Strings

September 12, 2016

I have to be honest, my favorite part of this may have been the first line:  “If you must blink, do it now.” It’s a storyteller’s first line — main character Kubo is a storyteller, and the line gets repeated twice more through the movie. As an attention-getting intro, it worked splendidly, and I started thinking about the idea of a one-sentence prologue.  A single line that’s sharp enough to hook a reader, that may not necessarily flow straight into the next line or even the rest of the story.  A storyteller’s summons.  “I sing of arms and the man…”  So I do appreciate any piece of art/creativity that gets me thinking about technique and purpose and art in general, and the serendipity of encountering a piece of art that starts me thinking in a new direction that may impact my own work. How these chance encounters can sometimes become so meaningful.

The film itself had a lot of visual impact. The story was a little rote, a little predictable, and a little too long — most scenes dragged just a little bit. There seemed to be an impulse to make each battle a little longer, each character interaction a little slower, to show off the animation. The overall pacing suffered, I think.  And one finds oneself asking the question of why does a Japanese story set in Japan have an all-white primary cast?

It’s a decent movie, really. I wasn’t disappointed. But I wasn’t blown away, either. Except by that first line.


theme and the MCU

August 26, 2016

When I drove home earlier this week, it wasn’t particularly late but I was very tired because I’d already been on the road ten hours.  So I put on the “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” from Guardians of the Galaxy, which has become my go-to driving while tired album.  It’s big, brassy, danceable, and keeps me awake.  As often happens with a good soundtrack, I got to thinking about the movie, especially the last montage during “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and I think I might have hit on something.

Guardians is all about family, right?  Finding a family when you’ve lost yours, fighting for your family, coming together and supporting each other.  But then — isn’t the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe about family?

I know as themes go that’s super broad and kind of all encompassing.  But I went character by character.  Thor dealing with his place in his family and his contentious relationship with his brother.  Natasha having all access and possibility of family cut off — and so she adopts Clint’s, and protects her fellow Avengers like family.  Steve Rogers struggling to replace families that keep getting taken away from him.  Bruce rejecting family — for their own protection, he thinks.  And even Scott Lang doing what he needs to do to get back to his family.  And Tony — Tony, who can’t seem to keep a family together no matter how much he wants to.

I don’t think this is something the filmmakers necessarily thought about ahead of time, beyond the fact that “family” as a theme makes for really powerful storytelling more often than not.  But I so like the idea of this one theme or concept tying all these movies together, even beyond the interlinking stories.  It gives me some ideas of where the MCU might go from here, and gives me some confidence that the movies will continue to hold together.


Gods of Egypt

August 3, 2016

So I caught up on this recent sword-and-sandals flick starring the guy who plays Jaime on Game of Thrones and Gerard Butler with his Scottish accent.  It got a lot of flack when it came out for borrowing a lot of Egyptian mythology without actually bothering to learn anything about Egyptian culture and casting all white people.  And then the director threw a tantrum about the criticism, which made me sad because it’s the same guy who directed The Crow and Dark City, which is one of my favorite movies, and he should really know better.

The whitewashing was not as bad as I was expecting — not as bad as Noah, for example, which did not have a single person of color in the entire thing, not even in crowd scenes, which it seems to me you’d have to really work at.  On the other hand, it turns out to be pretty striking when you’ve set a movie in Egypt, cast white actors in the leading roles and then populated many of the secondary, red shirt, and exotic love-interest roles with actors of color.  It’s like, obvious.  I’ll go back to The Force Awakens as at least a start of how to do things right:  variety in lead actors/characters is the goal, here.  Something different, something inclusive.  It’s not hard.


It’s strange.  It’s just completely strange.  Because there were parts that were really totally endearing.  (Scarab beetle chariot!)  The whole thing was actually goofy, and seemed to be goofy on purpose.  A little weird, having a Horus who in full god mode looked like a proof-of-concept for a live-action Silverhawks movie.  (Dear Hollywood:  please never do a live-action Silverhawks movie.)  It went on maybe forty minutes too long.  And I think I would have liked the whole movie better without that mortal kid hero guy thing.  God, he annoyed the hell out of me.

But now I want to write a story about a bunch of gods just, like, doing stuff.  I dunno what.  I’ll figure that out later.


Star Trek Beyond

July 25, 2016

That was a lot of fun, and something of a huge relief that the new incarnation no longer seems determined to rehash previous plot bunnies to death.  I understand new writers and a new director are to be credited.  Huzzah!  So what we get with this movie ends up being something unusual after fifty years of Star Trek:  not just a new story, but a kind of story that Star Trek hasn’t really done before.  Which was very cool I must say!

Spoilers ahoy!

One of my friends was unhappy with the promotional images for Star Trek Beyond because they show the Enterprise getting destroyed.  It isn’t that he hates seeing the Enterprise getting destroyed — it’s just that it’s been done so often by now, and what was spectacular and horrifying at the end of The Search for Spock is now just the thing that Star Trek does to try to shock people, which isn’t actually shocking anymore.

So the movie starts and things happen and the Enterprise is destroyed — in the very first act.  And it’s spectacular.  And we all think, “Holy cow, now what?”  Now what is Star Trek without the Enterprise.  The crew has all survived via escape pod and are now scattered on the planet below, being hunted by the alien baddy. (Who is actually the weakest part of the whole story.  There’s a baddy, there’s an alien Macguffin Device of sorts that the baddy is after, and it might have been the two margaritas I had beforehand but none of this was entirely clear to me.  Partly because none of it mattered.  It was just a necessary obstacle to provide the crew with the excuse they needed to be awesome.)

This was actually a great setup for a Star Trek story.  Uhura and Sulu get captured by the bad guy and do what they need to to hold the line and take care of the rest of the captured crew.  McCoy is marooned with a rather severely injured Spock, and they banter, as one expects.  Kirk and Chekov do the bulk of the adventuring, in tracking down the others.  Scotty meets the alien refugee who’d previously been marooned on the planet, and who has discovered the still-functioning wreckage of an earlier crash, an older Starfleet vessel that our lovely crew can now get up and running again in order to save the day.

This all gave us something that had been missing from the previous two films:  a crew, working together.  This isn’t the Kirk Angst Show.  This isn’t the non-stop Kirk-Spock buddy action drama.  This is a movie about the whole crew, about Starfleet, about their mission, about the good they can do.

Star Trek movies have tended to be big, to justify their existences on the big screen.  Giant existential threats against the whole of the Federation, Starfleet, whatever.  The two Abrams movies seemed to need to double down on that — altering timelines, destroying planets, etc.  This movie really felt like it just wanted to celebrate the little things that have always made Star Trek great:  very cool space stations.  Making friends with aliens.  (I must say, I loved kick-ass alien Jaylah in spite of myself.  She was kind of a big ol’ trope, but she was super-earnest.  And she seemed really excited about being invited to enter Starfleet Academy, which I just had to love.)  Each person on the crew having a job and being awesome, and not just being a satellite for Kirk.  The idea that Starfleet wins fights against power-hungry bad guys because of community and optimism.

The layer of meta:  in-universe, we learn that Ambassador Spock has died.  This felt important, because in the Next Gen timeline, he never died, he moved to Romulus and that was the last we heard of him.  So this was really the death of that character, the beloved old timeline character, which was a little strange to think of.  This was, in fact, a memorial to Leonard Nimoy, and it was gently done, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.  They only had time to add a “For Anton” in the credits for Anton Yelchin.  But for me, I think I cried a little bit every time he appeared on screen.

As has been said elsewhere, this isn’t the best Star Trek movie.  But it’s a good one, and is a good sign for more to come.