Sunday, April 08, 2018

Movie roundup

I've been seeing tons of movies since I got a Moviepass, so here are my brief thoughts on the latest ones in the world of imaginary cinema:
Annihilation - Creepy and very trippy sci-fi from Alex Garland, who has quickly become one of the most interesting voices in the genre. Natalie Portman leads a talented cast, as the film follows five women on a journey into a strange phenomena. This definitely deserved a wider theatrical release.

A Wrinkle in Time - I wasn't expecting much after the scathing reviews, but this is actually a pretty decent adaptation of a very difficult book. The cast is generally good (though the young actor playing Charles Wallace does struggle when his character makes his big change at the end) and the visuals are delightful. A flawed movie, to be sure, but one with a wonderfully positive message.

Pacific Rim: Uprising - About as good as a Guillermo del Toro-less sequel could be. The action and CGI are as superb as the first movie, but it doesn't have quite as much heart. John Boyega and Cailee Spaeny make appealing leads, and I certainly wasn't bored.

Ready Player One - I was wary about this movie from the start. I haven't read the novel, but the excerpts I've seen were so hilariously over the top in their 80's pop culture references that I thought the whole movie would be Spielberg referencing better movies, some of which he made himself. Some of it is like that, but for the most part the references are pretty cleverly integrated, including a lengthy sequence recreating Kubrick's The Shining and a cameo from everyone's favorite killer doll. The visuals are way too busy, and there are no stakes to the real world aspect of the story. But if you can get over that, there is some fun to be had here. Olivia Cooke, so good in Bates Motel and the recently released Thoroughbreds, is definitely the standout in an eclectic cast. Spielberg may never recapture the effortless crowdpleasing of his 70's, 80's and early 90's movies, but this is probably the closest he's come since.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Imaginary Cinema Awards 2017

It's that time of year again, when I post my top movie picks in the fantasy, horror and sci-fi genres. Bearing in mind that I have yet to see Get Out or Logan (the perils of having kids) these are the movies, actors and technical achievements that wowed me last year.

Best Movie: The Shape of Water

Runners-up: Wonder Woman, Coco, The Lego Batman Movie, Thor: Ragnarok, Blade Runner 2049, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, War for the Planet of the Apes, It: Chapter One, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Best Screenplay: The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor)
Runners-up: Thor: Raganrok, The Lego Batman Movie

Best Direction: Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water)

Runner-up: Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), Taika Watiti (Thor: Ragnarok), Dennis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049), Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

Best Actor: Doug Jones (The Shape of Water)
Runners-up: Michael Keaton (Spider-Man Homecoming), Andy Serkis (War for the Planet of the Apes), Woody Harrelson (War for the Planet of the Apes), Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water), Bill Skarsgård (It: Chapter One), Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water)

Best Actress: Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water)
Runners-up: Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), Sophia Lillis (It: Chapter One), Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok), Cate Blanchett (Thor: Ragnarok)

Best Music: The Shape of Water (Alexandre Desplat)
Runner-up: Blade Runner 2049 (Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch), Star Wars: The Last Jedi (John Williams)

Best Visual Effects: Blade Runner 2049

Runners-up: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, War for the Planet of the Apes

Best Production Design: Blade Runner 2049
Runners-up: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, The Shape of Water, Beauty and the Beast

Best Editing: The Shape of Water

Best Cinematography: Blade Runner 2049

Runner-up: The Shape of Water

Best Make-up: The Shape of Water
Runner-up: It: Chapter One

Best Costumes: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Runners-up: Beauty and the Beast, The Shape of Water

Most Pointless Sequel/remake: Alien Covenant
– not terrible, but after the ambitious disappointment of Prometheus, this was just rather dull.

Surprise/Disappointment of the Year: Justice League – I shouldn't have expected anything after Batman v Superman, but the success of Wonder Woman and Joss Whedon taking over the production fooled me into thinking it would be at least halfway decent. It wasn't.

Hero of the Year: The MeToo movement

Guilty Pleasure: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It's no The Fifth Element, but it was good to see Luc Besson back to doing weird sci-fi

Previous awards:

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Guillermo del Toro's Splash; Black Panther

Been seeing a lot more movies since I got my Moviepass, but two I definitely would have seen anyway are The Shape of Water and Black Panther.
First, The Shape of Water is richly deserving of all the awards buzz. While the plot at first seems like a gender-swapped remake of Splash, this is no feelgood romantic comedy. Del Toro has crafted another visually stunning and haunting dark fairytale that if not his best work is right near the top. Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones make a perfect couple and Michael Shannon plays a villain who's very easy to hate. Highly recommended, unless you are offended by inter-species sex (I know there are a few, judging by my screening).
As for Black Panther, what can I say that hasn't been said already? The movie is a phenomenon and the first Marvel film since, well maybe ever, that feels like a real movie that's actually about something other than spectacle and wisecracks. The cast is a delight, as is the colorful and definitely not grim visual style. A little violent for wee ones, maybe, but it's a superhero movie even for people who hate superheroes. Ryan Coogler was an inspired choice to bring this to the screen. Can't wait to see what he does next.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Last Jedi is . . .

. . . good. The Last Jedi is very good. People have been saying it's not your father’s Star Wars. Well, my Dad was never into Star Wars. So I guess I am the father in this scenario. And I really liked The Last Jedi, but with some caveats. The movie gets a lot right, especially compared to the pleasantly fan-servicing but ultimately unadventurous The Force Awakens. It helps that this movie doesn’t feel like a greatest hits compilation. While there are some familiar elements – a young Jedi seeks out an old hermit to be their mentor, there’s a battle on a snowy (actually salt this time) world – for the first time in decades a new Star Wars movie goes to some genuinely surprising places. The opening crawl is kept for nostalgic reasons, but it could easily have been done away with since, unlike the other episodes, nothing has really happened off screen since the last movie.

The opening space battle (one of the best in the saga) sets the tone. Spectacular action is mixed with human drama and some amusing (if perhaps tonally out of place) banter. When we cut back to Luke and Rey on the island, Luke casually tosses his father’s lightsaber over his shoulder, which demonstrates how the movie has a healthy irreverence for what came before. Indeed, there is very little training Luke offer Rey in the traditional sense, but there is an enjoyably testy relationship between them, and Mark Hamill gives perhaps his best performance of the saga. It’s just a shame we don’t get to see more of them together before Rey leaves to confront Kylo Ren and Luke gets a visit from an old friend. A muppet friend, might you say. But the highlight of this part of the movie has to be the delightful, and highly merchandisable, porgs. R2-D2 and C-3PO pretty much get neglected this time, but Chewie's interactions with these little creatures are delightful.

Of the new characters, Vice Admiral Holdo (a purple-haired Laura Dern) makes the biggest impact, even showing up fan favourite Poe Dameron to be something of a clueless flyboy when he starts an ill-advised mutiny. It’s a shame her character doesn’t stick around, but she goes out in the kind of spectacular sacrifice that many expected Leia to have after the tragic death of Carrie Fisher shortly after filming. The character of Rose is also very likable, though her adventure with Finn on a casino world is something of a distraction from the main plot. We also get to meet DJ, an entertaining scoundrel played by Benicio del Toro, but that does draw attention to the fact that there's still no cameo from old school scoundrel Lando!

The best scene in the movie is where Snoke (sorry, he’s not Darth Plagueis, Palpatine’s master) gets smoked and Rey and Kylo (briefly) team up for a nifty lightsaber battle against the guards before Kylo pulls the old join me and rule the galaxy routine. Rey's having none of that. From there it’s a short hop to that salt world and the final battle. It’s pretty spectacular, though the highlight has to be Luke finally deciding to get off his Ahch-To and challenge Kylo. But - surprise! - Luke was just force projecting and becomes one with the Force on another planet while our other heroes escape. Yeah, not everyone’s going to be happy with that twist but it sorta works for me.

The ending leaves us with a genuine new hope, with Rey the last Jedi. Except for that broom boy on casino world who may help save the galaxy. Overall, this is definitely one of the better Star Wars movies. I'd rank only The Empire Strikes Back, A New Hope, and possibly Revenge of the Sith above it. It's more visually imaginative and less reliant on nostalgia than Episode VII. Rian Johnson does a fine job directing and while the movie is a little overlong, it seldom drags.

My only concern is that it doesn't really end in a way that leaves the audience with lots of questions for the next part, the way Empire and even Attack of the Clones did. Snoke is dead, Luke is dead, Rey has discovered her parents are nobodies and most of the Resistance is dead. Aside from Kylo's possible redemption (which is looking less and less likely), and the fate of Leia, there's nothing major that really needs answering. Maybe Lucasfilm and JJ Abrams have a wowser of a conclusion already planned, but it seems like they have their work cut out for them, regardless of the high quality of The Last Jedi.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Thor RagnaROCKS, Coco and Stranger Things 2

Another quick roundup of the fantastic movies and TV shows I've seen lately.

Thor: Ragnarock - I have a soft spot for the Thor movies despite their flaws, mainly because of how delightful Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are together, and Ragnarok may be the best one yet, since it dispenses with any attempt at serious drama in favour of going more colourful and comedic than even the typical Marvel movie. The new cast is divine, especially Cate Blanchett as villainous goth goddess Hela, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Jeff Goldblum as Jeff Goldblum. Oh wait, his character is Grandmaster but he's hillarious. There are also some surprise cameos which are best if you don't have them spoiled.
The plot is mostly unimportant since this is really an excuse to team up Thor and Hulk for some gladiatorial combat followed by one of those big sky battles that all these movies have. Taika Waititi was an inspired choice to direct and brings his own peculiar humour that is different but equally funny compared to the Whedons and Gunns that have directed previous laugh-a-minute MCU movies. The movie does get in a nice dig at colonialism, but mostly it's just spectacular, daft fun. And Hulk finally says more than two words, so that's nice.

Equally delightful was Pixar's new movie, Coco. Although the trailers made it seem too similar to The Book of Life, Coco tells a very different Día de Muertos story. Basically it's about a boy's dream to be a musician (a career his family hates) that leads him on a journey to find his great-great grandfather in the Land of the Dead. Charming, funny and with wonderful visuals (check out those Alebrijes!) this one is fun for everyone and you may have something in your eye by the end.

Finally, I caught up with Stranger Things season 2. Like the first, the nostalgia is strong with this one. Some might find it a little slow-paced but I was gripped from start to finish. Winona Ryder, Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard continue to be standouts among the cast and of the new characters I especially liked Sadie Sink as "Mad" Max and Sean Astin as Bob. A few illogical parts (Dustin befriending a clearly dangerous, cat-eating beastie) can be forgiven and I even liked the episode where Eleven goes off to hang out with a gang that seems to have wandered in from Repo Man or Return of the Living Dead. And by the end you'll forget you ever hated Steve.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

It's the 80's all over again

It Chapter One
This is a decent adaptation of half of one of Stephen King’s best books that should lead to a flood of other King movies attempting to emulate its box office success (The Talisman, one of my personal favourites, is now finally on its way to the screen).
The filmmakers and cast do a great job capturing the characters of the kids, the updated 1980’s setting works like a charm, and Bill Skarsgard makes a fantastic Pennywise. If I hadn’t read the book, I would probably have very little negative to say about it. But since I have, there are a few problems that not even being only half the story can excuse.
First of all, almost all of the mythology from the book has been left out, in favour of a more simple scary clown tale. There are a few scenes that explain Pennywise’s centuries old haunting of the town of Derry, but nothing to really suggest he is anything more than a shape-changing monster (no Turtle, either). Hopefully some of this will be addressed in the grownups sequel, but it’s disappointing for anyone who liked the mythology of It as much as the scary aspect.
Secondly, while the kids mostly feel true to their book counterparts, there are a few changes that make two of them in particular less satisfying. Mike Hanlon, the only black kid in the group, loses most of his role from the book as a researcher of the history of Derry, making him seem almost like an afterthought until he joins the Losers halfway through the movie. And Beverly Marsh (fantastically played by Sophia Lillis) is unfortunately treated as a damsel in distress for the conclusion, something she never was in the book.
Aside from this, It really is a very well made slice of scary nostalgia, and I’m hopeful the sequel will fix some of these flaws.

Blade Runner 2049

This is right up there with Tron Legacy as a sequel I never imagined happening and while it’s more satisfying than that long-awaited follow-up, there are a few elements that make it not quite the great sequel it could have been.
First of all, the good. Ryan Gosling as “K” makes a fine replicant Blade Runner (they reveal his artificial status surprisingly early, so that’s not a spoiler) and is ably supported by a cast that includes Robin Wright as his surly boss, Ana de Armas as K’s holographic girlfriend and Sylvia Hoeks as the very creepy replicant Luv. There’s also a nice bit of misdirection with the casting of Mackenzie Davis who is a dead ringer for Daryl Hannah, but definitely isn’t playing Pris from the original film. Oh, and that Harrison Ford guy comes back as Rick Deckard for a very welcome extended cameo.
Visually, the film is amazing. The score by Hans Zimmer, while not quite matching Vangelis, is very effective. And most importantly in this age of spectacle over ideas, the film is full of fascinating sci-fi questions and is not afraid to leave some of them unanswered. If you really wanted the sequel to resolve whether Deckard is a replicant . . . well, get used to thirty more years of debate.
Unfortunately, at almost three hours, there are more than a few scenes in the movie that wear out their welcome. Despite some very good writing throughout, there are no scenes as immediately memorable as “tears in rain” or any other classic moments from the original. Also, the film has some troubling depictions of the female replicants and the violence inflicted on them (an unpleasant aspect of the original as well, to be fair).
But still, to get a sequel 35 years later that’s even half as thought-provoking and groundbreaking as the original is quite an achievement. I had problems with director Denis Villeneuve’s last film Arrival, too, but there’s no denying his movies are visually stunning and full of interesting concepts. And that’s something to be grateful for.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Return

Anyone who knows me knows that Twin Peaks is one of the TV shows that had the biggest impact on me. Only The Simpsons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer come close. So I was more than a tad excited when it was announced that it was coming back after a 25 year absence. And also worried, because history has taught us that long awaited continuations of pop culture milestones usually suck. And David Lynch, much as I love the guy, has been a little hit and miss with his most recent movies. But I was mainly hopeful, since Mark Frost (who wasn't involved with the movie prequel) was coming back, along with nearly all the surviving cast. Needless to say, the result was nothing like I expected. If you haven't watched Season 3 and want to avoid spoilers, stop here.

  ^ ^
(       )

Part 1: The first episode is something of a shock to the system. Agent Cooper and the town of Twin Peaks are almost nowhere to be seen. Instead, the episode focuses on new mysteries like a box in New York that contains one of those monsters that likes to kill people during sex and a Principal (Matthew “Shaggy” Lillard) accused of murdering a librarian whose body, minus the head, is missing. Only a scene between Hawk and the Log Lady (it’s very sad watching the terminally ill Catherine Coulson in these scenes) has the feel of the old series. Luckily, the sense of dread and questions raised are intriguing enough to make the first episode fly by pretty quick. Mostly, I'm just happy TP is back, even if I have no real clue what the fuck is going on.
Episode rating:

Part 2: In this episode we get to spend more time with the evil Cooper doppelganger, who has pretty much been running a criminal empire. Kyle MacLachlan is scary good as the reptilian Mr. C. We also check in with some more classic characters such as Shelly and James, and hear mention of other characters from the past such as Phillip Jeffries. The highlight of the episode has to be the evolution of the arm, though. Instead of being a little person played by Michael Anderson, he is now a tree with a talking blob of flesh on it. Lovely. Things are starting to fall into place.
Episode rating:

Part 3: After a fairly conventional first two episodes, this one pulls out the full Lynch. We follow the good Cooper in his attempts to escape from the Black Lodge in a mostly dialogue-free sequence. He succeeds but ends up swapping places with another Cooper double, Dougie Jones. Dougie-Cooper wanders round a casino, becoming “Mr. Jackpots” thanks to his luck on the slot machine. There's a genuine sadness in seeing how some of the characters have aged, such as FBI agent Albert Rosenfield (the late great Miguel Ferrer). We also check in with some old friends at the Twin Peak's Sheriff  station, but mostly this is as far from Twin Peaks as the show has gone. So far.
Episode rating:

Part 4: “Helloooo!” Back on more familiar ground this episode. Aside from a creepy meeting between the FBI and Cooper’s doppelganger, this is probably the most humorous episode so far. We're introduced to the new Sheriff Truman (Harry’s brother, played by the delightful Robert Forster, since Michael Ontkean didn’t want to return). But this episode is legendary for one reason - Michael Cera's hillarious performance as Andy and Lucy's biker son, Wally Brando. I will fight anyone who doesn't love this cameo.
Episode rating: Five Wally's

Part 5: This episode is mostly killing time, though we do get to check in on various people in Twin Peaks and follow catatonic Dougie-Cooper in his family life (Naomi Watts, introduced in the last episode, is great as his wife, Janey-E) and his insurance workplace (oh, hello Tom Sizemore). Also get confirmation that Bob is still inside Evil Cooper, so there's that.
Episode rating:

Part 6: This episode introduces assassin Ike “the Spike” and brings back Harry Dean Stanton. But the highlight has to be finally getting to meet Diane (the perfectly cast Laura Dern).
Episode rating:

Part 7: This episode has the return of Doc Hayward (the late Warren Frost) and a very disturbing scene where Diane meets the fake Cooper. We also get a glimpse of the real Cooper emerging when Dougie and Janey-E are attacked by Ike “the Spike”. Maybe Dale's about come back? No, you have to wait 10 more episodes.
Episode rating:

Part 8: An episode that features Evil Cooper being brought back to life by dirty woodsmen and Nine Inch Nails performing in a dive bar in the middle of nowhere – and those are the least strange parts of the episode. The rest defies summarizing, it just has to be experienced. “This is the water and this is the well. Drink full and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes and dark within.” Features many things that will never be explained, from a Kubrick-esque atomic explosion to a really gross frog-bug.
Episode rating:

Part 9: After the strangest hour of TV in history, it’s back to relative “normalcy”. Bobby Briggs discovers some important information about his father, Major Briggs. It’s satisfying to see Bobby finally became the good person his father believed he could be, even if not much else happens.
Episode rating:

Part 10: Probably the most unpleasant episode of the series yet, focusing as it does on Richard Horne (Audrey’s son) and his violence against women. We do get to see how ripped Dougie-Cooper is for an older gentleman though (Janey-E notices, too).
Episode rating:

Part 11: A much more satisfying episode than the previous one. Shelly and Bobby share a scene together (they split up, but they have a daughter) and Dougie-Cooper wins over the Mitchum Brothers, the gangsters that were going to kill him. He even eats cherry pie!
Episode rating:

Part 12: One of the best episodes is followed by one of the worst. We finally get to see Audrey, thankfully, but even by Lynch standards the meaning of much of the conversation with her “husband” is incomprehensible. The only scene with Kyle MacLachlan is a shot of him getting hit with a baseball and the end scene has a bunch of characters we don’t know talking about other people we don’t know.
Episode rating:

Part 13: Another episode that seems to be mostly turning wheels before the big climax, but at least it’s more entertaining. Highlights include Bad Coop arm wrestling a gang leader and James singing his classic high-pitched love song from the original series.
Episode rating:

Part 14: This is more like it! Some great expansion of the mythology here, including Andy (yes, Andy) meeting the giant (now known as “The Fireman”) and rescuing the mysterious woman Naido from episode 3; James learning about his British pal’s magic rubber glove that can’t be removed; and Sarah Palmer reacting to a guy harassing her in a bar by . . . you just have to watch it.
Episode rating:

Part 15: This episode has all the feels. Norma and Big Ed finally get together. The Log Lady dies. David Bowie’s character Phillip Jeffries comes back as a giant teapot. Oh and Dougie-Cooper sticks a fork in an electrical socket.
Episode rating:

Part 16: Aside from episode 8,this is undoubtedly the highlight of the series. Richard (yes, he is Bad Coop’s son) gets his just desserts. Diane is revealed as a tulpa. Eddie Vedder! Tim Roth and Jennifer Jason Leigh (playing two assassins who seem to have wandered in from a Tarantino movie) die spectacularly. Audrey gets to dance (but something is very wrong). And most importantly, the greatest FBI agent of all time is back!
No, not that one. This one:

If you're only just watching the show now, be glad you don't have to wait a week for the next episode.

Episode rating:

Part 17: Everything comes together in this episode. We learn that the real big bad this whole time was the often-mentioned, never seen Judy. Cooper is back to his old self and Bad Coop is defeated by an unexpected hero. And then Bob gets Hulk-smashed to hell. Everything seems fine. But then Coop makes the classic mistake of traveling back in time to change history (by saving Laura Palmer). Julee Cruise sings, but not for long. This is a good episode to end at if you want a semi-upbeat conclusion to the series.
Episode rating:  

Part 18: If 17 was for the fans, this is all Lynch. The only happy part of the episode is a manufactured Dougie (or is it the real Cooper?) returning to live with Janey-E and Sonny Jim. Otherwise, it’s bleak, unsettling fair, with half of the episode seemingly devoted to mostly dialogue-free driving scenes. Cooper is no longer acting like himself, dealing violently with redneck diners and engaging in joyless sex with Diane. As the ending scenes with Cooper and Laura Palmer’s doppelganger in this new dimension drag on and on, we realize that none of the dangling questions are going to be answered by the end. But the disturbing final shot will linger in the memory for a long time.
Episode rating:

In conclusion, Twin Peaks came back, and it was both weirder and more entertaining than I could have hoped for. That’s something to be thankful for, regardless of how frustrating it was at times. Thank you David Lynch, Mark Frost, and all your collaborators. The subplots about Bobby and Shelly's daughter (Amanda Seyfried), Dr. Jacoby and his golden shovels, and many more may have gone nowhere. But at least you answered most of the big questions. Except this one, damn it!