Category Archives: Movies

Alien: Covenant – Movie Review

One thing that disappointed me about the prequel Prometheus was that it started to open up the Aliens mythology (with the Engineers, and a Lovecraftean backstory), but in the end the story was reduced to another space crew finding a primitive version of the Alien xenomorph, and being slaughtered. I was hoping that Alien: Covenant (the sequel to the prequel) would make more of that story, but sadly it didn’t really. Once again, a space crew ends up on a planet where the monster awaits them, and they fight for their lives. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that it’s not thrilling and well-made, or that I don’t enjoy another trip to space-horror town, but let’s make this story broader, no?

Covenant is definitely a follow-up to Prometheus as it opens on a flashback for the android David, from the first movie, talking to his creator, Weyland. That scene has a thematic connection to the rest of the movie, dealing with the idea of creation and creators. That theme was also a big part of Prometheus. In this movie, our intrepid space crew is awakened from cryo-sleep when a freak space storm-type event causes major damage to the ship, which is also carrying thousands of colonists to a new home. Their caretaker is another android, named Walter (also played by Michael Fassbender, but this time with an American accent — Hmmm.) When the crew stabilize things a bit and start making repairs, they also discover a nearly ideal planet that they didn’t notice before, one that is perfect for their colony and would save them another 7 years of their cryo-sleep journey — Hmmm. Too good to be true? Maybe in a horror movie, eh? So a predictably stupid decisions is made for the crew to go down to the planet and check it out. Unfortunately, they stupid decisions just keep coming when they decide that the primordial jungle is so balmy that they don’t need any helmets — even the Prometheus crew wore helmets, until they decided not to and let the alien spores get into their bodies. And so on.

Michael Fassbender really steals the show in the dual role of Walter and David. Not only does he have a great story-telling voice, he’s got that stolid calmness, that inscrutable creepiness, and that trusted strength, all of which he can subtly switch around. They’ve also come a long way with their showing dual roles side-by-side on screen. I’m not quite sure how they do it, but the scenes between the two androids are seamless. As enjoyable as Fassbender’s performance was, I don’t quite know why they chose to make David the centre of the story. Once the space crew meet up with him, he’s like some kind of creepy, Gothic host welcoming them to his Transylvanian castle (Mwa-ha-ha-ha!). Going back to my earlier comments about how the movie could have really expanded the world of these films, getting into world of the Engineers, or even find ways to expand on the xenomorphs and how they mutate, I think that’s where the interesting stuff is. Maybe someone can even come up with some real biological ground rules for these creatures rather than just having them change or become whatever is needed to cause more carnage for the crew. Instead the story all seems focused on a few human/android characters every time, and how they foolishly fall prey to these alien creatures.

If you’re a pop culture nerd like myself, you could argue the cautionary tale of a very similar movie franchise, Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick, which did try to parlay a story with killer alien monsters into an entire attempt at world-building and complex mythology. That attempt failed and led to Riddick, the last sequel, going back to the formula of a planet full of bloodthirsty creatures. However, I think that if we’re going to get a whole bunch more of these Alien sequels (or pre-sequels), we need to do more than just rehash the same formula over and over. Perhaps Ridley Scott just felt that the first Alien movie was so archetypal that he’s been continually trying to retell that story from different angles.

Anyway, Covenant was definitely well made for space-horror: the visuals and special effects are gory and great. We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t even question the CGI. In the back of our minds, these creatures basically exist. Again, the potential for a much more epic and interesting story universe is still out there, as they haven’t explored much more of it here. The movie plot itself held the possibility of many twists, but in the end fell back on a bit too many cliches to be surprising. If you’re new to the genre, you may prefer to watch the original Alien, but if you’re a fan of the series, you’ll certainly get more of what you’ve come to love (4 out of 5).

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 – Movie Review

C_MR_WhUIAApVo9The “Marvel Cinematic Universe” has become something of a beast, weighed down by continuity, history, and the expectations of big budgets and big fandom. However, a new Guardians of the Galaxy movie comes out to remind us that there are still fun adventures to be had in the MCU. One of the advantages that the Guardians have is that they were relative unknowns in the Marvel Comics world before they burst onto the big screen three summers ago. Even with the runaway success of their first movie, they are still not icons like Captain America, Spider-Man or the X-Men. They could have just as easily been a totally new sci-fi franchise featuring a rag-tag band of space adventurers. In fact, it’s probably no surprise that they remind me a lot of the original Star Wars crew. In this second movie (“volume”), we seem to be catching Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon, and (now baby) Groot in the middle of a job, hired to protect giant space batteries by a race of golden-gods known as The Sovereign. The opening sequence is full of action, but hilariously baby Groot (the cute little tree person) takes the spotlight as he dances to some grooves while all his fellows fight a giant tentacular, toothy-mouthed monster trying to steal those darn batteries in the background. It perfectly reflects the tone of this movie franchise and its tongue-in-cheek blend of spectacular space-action with mundane, shoulder-shrugging humour.

The other element that completes the Guardians formula (which also happens to be a Star Wars hallmark) is “family issues”. Their payment from The Sovereign for doing this job is to get custody of Gamora’s sister Nebula (in order to hand her over to the authorities) and so the two gals have ample opportunity to work out all their differences over some beat downs and attempts at mutual destruction. Meanwhile, when the crew ends up needing to flee The Sovereign (courtesy of Rocket’s sticky fingers around the priceless space batteries), they get a helping hand from a mysteriously powerful stranger, which leads to some family issues for Quill as well.

This ensemble is very nicely balanced and it’s great how each of the main characters is needed: not only as part of the team, but also to make the movie enjoyable. While Groot and Rocket typically steal the show, this time around Drax was the source of the most humour for me. Dave Bautista is wonderful as the faux straight-man. He’s big, strong and kind of serious, but he’s also full of jokes because he laughs at the “wrong” thing and just doesn’t feel the same sense of impropriety that we might. (This will make me sound like I have a 4-year-old’s sense of humour, but I was rolling with laughter from Drax’s line “I have famously huge turds.” Please don’t judge me.)

The story itself is not too big, even though it involves galaxy-ending possibilities, the focus is still pretty personal. Almost all the aliens we meet are slight variations on humans. When The Sovereign pursue our heroes their fighter ship swarms are remote-controlled, making all their pilots act like a bunch of gamers at an arcade. Similarly, the storyline where Quill’s foster father Yondu struggles with mutiny in the ranks of his own crew of Ravagers, it feels like something inspired by The Sons of Anarchy, or some other human biker gang. Yondu himself has a pretty big role in the resolution of this movie. I actually grew to like him a bit more — not just for his relationship to Quill, but also for his bad-assery and his cool mind-controlled arrow.

The Guardians are a lot of fun to hang out with over the course of a two-hour movie, but there is so much potential for more adventures that I really wish that they were a TV series (I’d probably enjoy it way more than Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD). There is also so much room for sci-fi goodness in their corner of the galaxy that I want to see more before the next sequel movie. I know, there is an animated series that I should probably check out, but from what I saw, it was not nearly the same thing. Anyway, I highly recommend Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 as a great kick off to a summer filled with blockbuster movie sequels and franchises. (4 out of 5)

Oscar Schmoscar 2017

Each year, when I do these quickie reviews of Oscar nominees that I’ve seen, a few of them are marginal categories — like sound editing, or costume design — but this year I think I’ve got a better slice. I still may not necessarily love the winners, but I’m glad that doing my Oscar-viewing “homework” gets me to enjoy a few films that I would otherwise have overlooked.

arrivalArrival

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Adapted Screenplay

A film that I would definitely have watched (and not overlooked) regardless of if it had been nominated, Arrival falls into one of my favourite sub-genres: brainy sci-fi. The movie is about Amy Adams’s character, Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is employed by the US military to translate for an alien race whose 12 ships have appeared around the globe. Part of what raises this story to a higher level is how it imagines the challenges of a task like this more realistically than previous sci-fi. The movie shows us how it would understandably be much more difficult than learning another human language. Nevertheless, it’s not just a dry science-y stuff about a first encounter situation. It’s also interwoven by a story of Banks’s own life experiences, having a child who dies of a fatal disease. The movie presents the story in a non-linear fashion, jumping around in flashbacks to various memories and moments in her life. The look of the movie, with its giant monolithic spaceships, and smoky-foggy atmosphere only add to the moodiness and dreaminess of the film — which seems par for the course with brainy sci-fi. That tone also seems to be cinematic shorthand for emotional depth and profundity. As you may have realized from my vague comments, this is actually a tricky film to pin down since it is very non-traditional. Nevertheless, I found it moving, thought-provoking, and really enjoyable — and I hope it wins Best Picture (4.5 out of 5).

lalaland-featureLa La Land

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Original Song (x2), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, and Original Screenplay

On to the front-runner… I have to say that I found this movie (which has won a lot of awards already) to be way over-hyped. The semi-musical about an aspiring actress (played by Emma Stone — who I love!) and a struggling jazz pianist (played by Ryan Gosling — who I think is pretty cool) does not have that magic that makes it a Best Picture in my book. The movie tries to capture some old Hollywood musical flair (like a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, or Gene Kelly’s Singin’ In The Rain), which it actually does fairly well. The scenes flow smoothly into song-and-dance numbers that are well done and look very nice. However, I didn’t feel like the musical numbers had any point other than as bits of flash. I like it when musicals use songs to allow characters to express themselves directly to the audience in a way that they might not be able to through dialogue. This movie starts out with a traffic jam that breaks into song, and later there’s a Hollywood party where the extras sing and dance — it’s all fluff. Stone and Gosling are on their third cinematic pairing, but I didn’t feel the chemistry this time between them. Don’t get me wrong, their scenes together still aren’t bad (and they’re both so attractive that it’s easy to think of them as a couple) but maybe it’s because they didn’t have as many scenes of good interaction as they should. To top it off, I didn’t find their voices very compatible, so when they sang together I cringed a little. The music wasn’t bad (and the haunting “City of Stars” theme is still playing in my head) but in the end, the overall movie was not very satisfying. The theme of following one’s dreams (in Hollywood) and what that might cost has been done to death. There was a bit of play with the storyline and “what-ifs”, and to that bit of editing and storytelling I would give some credit, but it still left the ending kind of flat for me. (3.5 out of 5)

andrew-garfield-hacksaw-ridgeHacksaw Ridge

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing

This true-life story really caught my attention, despite the fact that I’m not a big fan of war stories. Andrew Garfield plays US Army Private Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who would not pick up a gun despite tremendous opposition and pressure from everyone around him, including his commanders. Becoming a medic, Doss’s heroics saved many of his fellow soldiers, and turned a very difficult and almost hopeless battle into a victory against the Japanese. Director Mel Gibson has a visceral and gory style when it comes to violence in film (which is evident in an early pre-war scene of a young man who gets injured in a car mishap and his leg wound is spurting blood). Nevertheless, the main battle scene is very well done and conveys the kind of anxiety and tension that the soldiers must have felt fighting in the trenches. Unfortunately, the script has an overly sentimental and simplistic style: early scenes are always paid off later in the movie, or characters (namely Doss) start to feel larger-than-life and unshakeably noble. I was also bothered by the demonization of the Japanese (the few scenes depicting Japanese soldiers showed them either committing ritual suicide after defeat, or deceptively surrendering to US troops only to throw grenades when they got close). Overall, there was just a lack of sophistication to the script. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy this movie, because I definitely did. It was thrilling, inspiring, heartfelt and moving in parts — and I guess that’s really what it was supposed to be. (4 out of 5)

florence_bFlorence Foster Jenkins

Nominated for Best Actress, and Costume Design

I watched this movie mainly because I am in awe of Meryl Streep, who inhabits her characters and never gives a bad performance. As good as she was playing the title character — a wealthy New York socialite and arts patroness during the 40s — I don’t really see why this movie was made, and why this true-life story was interesting to tell. Jenkins was a huge devotee of music and loved to put on concerts to an audience that gave her praise despite the fact that she was a technically terrible singer (and Streep is a good singer, so it’s even part of her good performance to be shrill and out of tune). The story was arguably sadder because Jenkins didn’t realize that the kudos and adoration often weren’t genuine, but means of getting her patronage. Even her husband (played by Hugh Grant) was living with another woman on the side. After Hacksaw Ridge, which is set in the same time period, it seems even more trivial that this rich woman was putting on concerts out of vanity while the war was going on. Coincidentally there was a scene(actually a pretty good one) that made this incongruity even more pronounced where Jenkins had given free tickets to some of the military troop for her performance at Carnegie Hall. The soldiers all came across as boorish and uncouth as they were laughing and booing Jenkins’s terrible singing. So much of this movie is about how everyone around her tries to protect Jenkins from learning the disappointing truth for fear it will break her heart. In fact, there’s even an almost so-bad-it’s-good admiration that many felt for Jenkins, along with a genuine appreciation of her magnanimous spirit. Interestingly, in a parallel way, it feels uncouth for me to dislike this movie. On the surface it seems trivial and vain, but to paraphrase one of the movie lines “it’s singing its heart out”. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m not appreciating the spirit of this film. Nevertheless, I still think it only merits at 3 out of 5.

amancalledove_trailer1A Man Called Ove

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Makeup & Hair

Going out to left field a bit, I also wanted to review a foreign film nominee. I have a sweet spot for Scandinavian cinema, so A Man Called Ove sounded like a good choice. A relatively subtle film about an old curmudgeon who lives in a suburban housing complex, Ove is very set in his ways. When he loses his job, it’s finally time to join his deceased wife and he decides to commit suicide. Unfortunately (or fortunately) every time he makes an attempt, he is interrupted by his disturbing neighbours and he starts to find reasons to stick around a little longer. Eventually he befriends (or he is befriended-by) a new neighbour — a pregnant Persian woman — who helps Ove’s life get brighter and brighter. I say this film is subtle because it’s not a single heartfelt incident, or an important and touching conversation that melts Ove’s heart. Instead, it’s a series of mundane events that bit by bit nudge his life and his character in a different direction. Interspersed through the film, Ove has flashbacks to events earlier in his life, especially with his beloved wife Sonja. It’s wonderful to see the triumphs and tragedies that led him to become the man we see. The Oscar nomination for hair and makeup is probably for the ageing of the main actor, who apparently looks nothing like the balding Ove. I’m not sure if this award is deserved (especially over movies like Star Trek Beyond or Suicide Squad) but even the physical transformation was very subtle to me. This kind of film is far from unique, but when done well it can be both touching and inspiring. I haven’t seen any of the other Foreign Film nominees, but I wouldn’t mind if this one won. (4 out of 5)

zootopiaZootopia

Nominated for Best Animated Feature

I really love Zootopia and think it deserves to win. It’s not as artsy as some of the other nominees, but this movie about a small town bunny who starts her career as a cop, is so enjoyable. On top of the cuteness and the fun, it’s also a great hybrid of an animated animals story with an actual buddy cop storyline. The characters are wonderfully (and hilariously) conceived, and their expressions and looks are memorably great. As a fan of animated movies, I also found this movie carefully-able to tread that fine line between animals that represent people (which is good) and animals that parody people (which is bad). Zootopia doesn’t just have animals acting like humans  — which always leads to terrible puns — but it’s more like the animals are their own society based on humans. [I know I’m doing a terrible job of explaining this distinction — and you probably don’t care — but to me this makes all the difference between a Shark Tale and a Finding Nemo.] On top of the great characters, hilarious scenes, and fun adventure, this movie also throws in some bigger themes like racism, stereotypes, political corruption, etc. Whether or not this movie wins the Oscar (which I hope it does), I really want Disney to make a sequel as well (4.5 out of 5).

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Movie Review

rogue6-xxlarge_transcwvra147zcynwgnsprk1xwk-qyyao4e-i8v8-xkbjn4Despite being a big fan of the Star Wars universe, I wasn’t really dying to see Rogue One as much as I should have been. Nevertheless, I’m glad that I watched this really fun movie this week. As others have said, it’s the prequel movie that we’ve been waiting for. For starters, this story is related much more directly to the events of the original Star Wars movie (aka Episode 4: A New Hope). We find out what went into getting those Death Star plans to the rebels that we see in that first movie. (Even more satisfyingly, we finally understand why it was so easy to blow up the Death Star with a single shot!) Even though we are mostly introduced to new characters that we have not seen in previous movies or stories, the context is very familiar. There are glossy-white storm troopers all around; you always need to get past an alien guy to see the human that you want to talk to; and everyone dresses in distressed leather with desert scarves like they just came off a dusty jeep ride. Even our heroes and their rag-tag band are echoes to previous movies: spunky female Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) is clearly cut from the Leia/Amidala/Rey cloth; rebel captain Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna) has a definite Han/Poe vibe; and K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) fills our snarky C3-PO role with a better sense of humour (sorry, no cute wordless droid this time). Even though there are a lot of classic tropes in this movie, compared to The Force Awakens, Rogue One feels a lot more fresh and not like we’re watching another rehash of the seminal Star Wars story.

I really like the idea that not only does this movie fill in some back-story about how the rebels were able to get the plans to the Death Star, but also that it expands the world of the first movie in a very reasonable way. Despite the intimately connected cast of characters, as the title supposedly indicates, Star Wars is telling a war story. So, like in any war, there are many struggles and conflicts, with so much at stake, and so many lives affected, that there should be no end of perspectives to be shared and stories to be told. It’s great that they finally decided to tell one of the other ones. Jyn is the daughter of Galen Erso (played by Mads Mikkelson), a scientist/engineer who is forced at gunpoint to abandon his family to serve the evil empire and build the Death Star. On the eve of the empire’s launching of the Death Star super-weapon, Jyn is brought back into the picture when a runaway imperial pilot brings a secret message from Galen to Saw Gerrera (played maniacally by Forest Whitaker), a rebel extremist leader, which was meant for her. To prove her father is not evil, Jyn needs to rally some rebel aid (and along the way, gathers some rag-tag allies) to secure plans for the Death Star in order to help them destroy the weapon.

Considering so many things in this movie have been done before, it’s difficult to pinpoint what makes it so enjoyable. Obviously, the visuals are top-notch; from the opening scenes in the breath-taking mountainous landscapes where Jyn was born, to the eventual beaches on the planet Scarif where they fight the empire. Also, the many aliens and space-battles are always a CGI thrill. While on the topic of CGI, recreating the period of the first movie obviously provided a few challenges to the Rogue One team. It’s great that they kept a lot of the aesthetics of the Death Star interiors (with the displays and dials that seemed modern back in the 70s, but still look alright even today) from the first movie. However, what was more of an elaborate, nostalgic effort was the digital recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin (the imperial governor who commanded the Death Star). The actor, Peter Cushing, who played the character in the first movie passed away over 20 years ago. Lucasfilm used some of their latest effects from Industrial Light and Magic to recreate him and it’s actually pretty amazing. I mean, we still haven’t gotten to the point where we can’t tell the difference between actual actor and digital stand-in, but it’s pretty close. It was a little distracting because you can’t help looking closely for signs of artificiality (I’m still not quite sure what’s actually missing, but there’s definitely something), but they made a really good effort. Some viewers have complained a bit about how (like in every prequel) this movie suffers from the need to throw in cameos from the classic cast — while some make meaningful appearances, others do not.

Nevertheless, with all the attention to detail, I think in the end I was most drawn to the new characters. I really liked Jyn and Cassian. I believed in their cause and with their crew they became the underdogs that really had very little chance against an overwhelming force — but they had (as the movie keeps reminding us) hope. Also, the side-characters were wonderful as well — including Asian characters in the Star Wars universe (though one of them is still kind of relegated to doing martial arts) — way to represent, guys! If you felt kind of meh about The Force Awakens, give Rogue One a try. It might revive some of the excitement you have felt in the past for the Star Wars franchise. Plus it’s an exciting sci-fi adventure in its own right. (4.5 out of 5).

Moana – Movie review

moana57c47666d55dd1For a simple animated kids film about a Polynesian princess (technically, she’s only the daughter of a chief, but you know what Disney’s marketing department will say — there is even a line in the movie about the criteria for princess-hood) who seeks her own destiny to help save her people, there are a lot of expectations around this movie. For starters, this movie follows in the tradition of mega-hit Frozen, taking a legend/folktale and giving it new, animated, musical life. The animation has a similar style (most notably with those giant eyes!), and the story is once again full of female empowerment and animal sidekicks (a little pig and a ridiculously stupid rooster, along with “the ocean” as a kind of ally or pet — bet no one’s ever tried that before). Along for the ride is a demi-god named Maui: a thick-chested, tattoo-covered, shape-changing trickster, voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Together, they quest to restore a magical jewel to the heart of a dormant island goddess.

While there are many similarities between this movie and its other Disney predecessors, story-wise the most recent analogue is actually the marvellous Kubo and the Two Strings. Again, there’s a kind of folktale context in which a young person sets off on a quest with some magical allies. In fact, there’s even a very similar scene in both movies where a magic object is stuck in the back of a large monster and our heroes need to retrieve it. I love that Disney and other animation studios are still telling folktales to kids. Animation is one of the best media for capturing the magic and wonder of those kinds of stories. It’s also great that Disney continues to tour the world to bring different cultures to its young audiences. I know that it is often probably more trouble than it’s worth given that there’s always a controversy or two and there’s a lot of political correctness to be maintained, but I really hope that they don’t give up on this goal. The good definitely outweighs the bad, in my opinion.

What amazes me about each new feature from Disney and Pixar animators is how they just keep getting more skilled and masterful at the animation. In this movie, there are (as to be expected) many scenes of the beaches and oceans of the South Pacific. While I enjoyed all the fun, the songs, and the story, to me the most impressive feature of this movie was the incredible water animation (apparently they developed new technologies just for that aspect of this movie). The beaches, waves and water looked unbelievably realistic, and every time we looked out into the horizon over the endless ocean, I could not believe that none of it was real — it all existed only in the computer! If you’re waiting for home video, I would say that the ocean scenes alone are worth seeing on the big screen. Less worthy of bigness, but still pretty cool is how they have also seemed to master the computer generation of curly hair. I know it started in Pixar’s Brave, so maybe that tech is only being perfected in Moana and Maui’s hair, but I gotta say, they both have a lot of bouncy curly locks that any shampoo commercial would kill for.

So what about the story, you ask? It’s pretty good. As I mentioned, it’s an ocean-borne quest where Moana needs to set off to find Maui the demi-god and bring him to the island of Matanui to restore its jewelled heart (and thus restore the life power to the islands, which are dying). Of course, nothing goes without a hitch and a couple of side missions. There’s even a bit of a twist ending (which again reminded me of the twist ending in Kubo and the Two Strings).

The two main actors are pretty good. Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho is youthful and spunky as Moana. I think the casting was perfect. Johnson was also excellent as Maui. He definitely has a more modern, humourous personality which reminded me a little of Eddie Murphy’s dragon character in Mulan in that it seemed anachronistic but it still worked and was quite funny. There are a few other guest roles (including Alan Tudyk as Hei Hei the rooster, which still perplexes me because the rooster does not talk) with a pretty fun cast. If he sounds familiar, but you can’t put your finger on the voice of Tamatoa (the crab monster), it’s the distinctive voice of Flight of the Conchords‘s Jemaine Clement.

Last but not least, the music was  enjoyable as well. There are some rousing epic numbers as well as some funny ones. Moana has her own little anthem, which is not going to be “Let It Go” big (but how could any song hope to be that big?). Frankly, I can’t remember Moana’s song anymore, but during the movie it was nice. Lin-Manuel Miranda (the superstar creator of Broadway megahit Hamilton) also worked on some of the songs — I’m guessing it was Maui’s number, “You’re Welcome”.

Moana is a really fun movie and I am sure that it’s going to do really well at the box office and all the kids are going to want to get tattoos now (only to be disappointed when once they realize that tattoos don’t actually move animatedly). Despite all our expectations, I think Disney has lived up this time. (4.5 out of 5)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Movie Review

fantastic-beasts-easter-egg-frank-thunderbird

This is my most anticipated movie of 2016, and I have been looking forward to seeing it ever since they announced that we would be returning to JK Rowling’s wizarding world (without Harry). Just like they did with Tolkien’s The Hobbit, they took a thin book, with story set in the same universe, and made a whole bunch of quasi-prequel movies from it. In this case, the original was a little textbook about magical beasties that the Hogwart’s students supposedly read in school. To make a series of movies, Rowling herself got involved to write a script about the book’s fictional author, named Newt Scamander, and his adventures in jazz-age New York.

At first, I was a bit concerned about the movie because it seemed like it was just going to be about Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne), bungling things up in an attempt to recover his creatures once they escaped his magical suitcase. Don’t get me wrong, those are some fun scenes, including a gold-loving platypus-like critter loose in the bank, and doing a mating dance to attract a giant magical rhino at the zoo. However, I expected more from Rowling and friends, and they did not disappoint. The creatures are the hook, but it turns out that something much scarier and deadlier is hurting Muggles (which the Americans call “no-maj” on account of their being people with no magic). This crossing over of the magical world into the non-magical is a big problem, and it brings the magical government into the story, trying to maintain their secrecy — a cornerstone issue for wizarding politics. That’s what gets Scamander into trouble as he gets arrested by a local agent and needs to deal with their American ministry of magic.

The tone of this movie starts off light and whimsical, but as the story spreads, it becomes more serious and much darker. It’s exciting that Rowling expands her world even further than ever. We have seen wizarding banks and ministry offices already in the Harry Potter movies, but now we go to wizarding night clubs, meet wizarding gangsters, and even get to see the wizarding death penalty. It was also great to feel that this world was so broad. This movie opened the door to many other such stories waiting to be told; I imagined even the idea of a weekly procedural show based on cases from the office of the aurors (magical police). There is so much exciting potential.

Along with Redmayne (whose mumbly, accented voice takes some getting used to), the main cast is filled with relatively new faces. Katherine Waterston plays the arresting agent and reluctant ally, Porpentina Goldstein. Her sister Queenie (played by Alison Sudol), and Jacob Kowalski (a No-Maj who stumbles into the adventure when he runs into Scamander at the bank) bring their side-kick game (as well as some romance) to the story. Finally, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, and Colin Farrell all play dark characters who may be villains or victims (plus there’s a surprise cameo at the end). The cast is pretty good (especially Sudol, who I’d never heard of before), and really helped sell this universe.

If I had to provide a critique of this movie, I think it could have used a bit more colour and brightness. I get that they’re going for a film noir vibe, but have a few more scenes in the daylight rather than night-time (it didn’t help that I was watching through the murk of 3D glasses). Maybe not everyone should dress in darks and blacks, either. Other than that, it’s hard for me to speak badly about another visit to this magical world, even hearing people name the old spells brought a warm feeling of familiarity. Now I cannot wait until the next movie (there are more planned) or maybe I’ll crack open the books again — I haven’t yet read the new Harry Potter play, either. This movie really reminds me of what made that world so enchanting and well loved. (4.5 out of 5)

Getting Creepy With Netflix 2016

This year, for my Halloween creepfest (that’s where I watch a bunch of movies that are scary, but more on the psychological side, without all the gratuitous gore and demonic horror that can be part of a scary movie these days), I once again decided to plumb Netflix’s movie collection for some creepy gems. Last year I enjoyed a few good ones, including the inspired, frightening, new classic, It Follows. Alas, this year I watched four movies but was not really scared at all. Consider these reviews more of a warning of what to avoid this All Hallow’s Eve. Note: I watch Canadian Netflix, so if you are in another region, you might not have these movies available — Consider yourself lucky!

emelie-02Emelie

I’m guessing that this movie about a psycho babysitter is meant to tap into every parent’s fear of leaving their kids with a stranger. That could have made for some tense and thrilling suspense, but alas this movie is ruined by all the psycho-character cliches that are thrown in for no logical reason. Emelie screams at the kids; she breaks all of the mom’s rules; she feeds the kids’ hamster to their snake and makes them watch; and she’s a total perv, making the kids watch a videotape of their dad having sex with another woman, and making the pre-teen boy watch her use a tampon in the bathroom, all just to prove that she is crazy. Message was received when we started the movie by watching the real babysitter get abducted. We know she’s a fake! Wouldn’t it have been so much more suspenseful if she had acted like a good babysitter, only to gradually slip up and leave clues that allowed us to realize that Emelie’s story was a lie? Anyway, even her motives are made so plain, as she tells the youngest child an allegorical bedtime story about how a mother lost her little cub and wants to replace it. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from showing us the whole thing acted out in a flashback while she narrates. When the kids finally fought back, I was so happy, not so much because I wanted them to be safe, but I just wanted the story to end. (1.5 out of 5)

da_theinvitation_mesaThe Invitation

Another suspense, indie-film, classic theme is the dinner-party gone awry. We start out with a couple driving up to a big house in the Hollywood hills for a dinner party. Apparently, Will (played by Logan Marshall Green with Jesus-like long hair and beard) had previously been married to the hostess. When he and his new girlfriend arrive, most of the other guests are there and it’s sort of a reunion of the former couple’s old friends. Again, we’re treated to a few dinner-party-film cliches as someone proposes a truth-revealing game, and some sex and drugs get thrown around. As the truth-telling continues, we hear a bit more about a few of the guests who are new friends of Will’s ex and her new boyfriend (played by Game of Thrones‘s Michiel Huisman). They all spent some time together in a cult of sorts that seems pre-occupied with death– a red flag! As the dinner goes on, there’s a strange undercurrent to the evening that only Will seems to notice. I guess I wish this movie had been better written, and made up its mind what kind of movie it was going to be. If it was going to be more of a “dinner party conversation” kind of movie, then it needed some more thought-provoking dialogue that dealt more with some interesting new ideas and philosophies. If it was going to be a suspenseful, shocking, twisty film, then it should have built up the suspense gradually. It was tense, granted, but so implausible that everyone would just have a regular dinner with all the weirdness that happened — I think the actual dinner being delivered as a montage was a clever way to avoid dealing with that flaw. I won’t spoil the over-the-top climax, but it’s not as unexpected as you might think. There’s a bit of a twist at the end, but by then I didn’t really buy the story anyway, so I was far-from-chilled by its implications. (2.5 out of 5)

the-witch-02The Witch

I had heard that this movie was very scary — in a slow-burning, get-inside-your-head kind of way, but it was not for me. However, what I thought was really good was the performances of all the characters and how they pulled off the dialogue in Puritan-English. Kudos to the writers of this movie, set in 17th century New England, for actually using very authentic-sounding language of the time rather than just using modernish English. The main characters included a teen girl, a pre-teen boy, and two young twins, who all very naturally spoke the period dialogue. This movie seems all about the authenticity, and if it were just about the hardships of a pilgrim family banished from the settlement, struggling to survive in the bleak wilderness, it would have made a very good movie. While it’s still not a bad movie, deciding to mix in the idea of a witch tormenting these poor souls took this film down another path. It would have made for some scary suspense if they’d left the question open to the imagination, but perhaps the filmmakers were sticking with authenticity when they quickly revealed the actual witch (in all her grotesqueness) who stole the baby from this poor family. For the rest of the movie, this very religious family starts pointing fingers at each other and seeing witchcraft in their own household, but alas we already know who the real culprit is — suspense diminished. I don’t know how she would feel about this comment, but another prize should go to whoever cast Kate Dickie as the mother. If you watch Game of Thrones, you’ll know her as Lysa Arryn of the Vale. She’s got the face and demeanour to play any shrew or harridan character that writers can come up with. In this movie, when she believed her own daughter to be the witch, her over-reactions reminded me so much of when Lysa had persecuted poor Sansa Stark. Overall, this movie is pretty well-made. Unfortunately, I found myself distracted by wondering why any of this was happening. I didn’t understand why the witch would target this family (and what would have kept her busy in the middle of nowhere if this family had not come along). The ending could have been played for shock, but it isn’t really. I’m not sure I know what to make of that either. (3.5 out of 5)

iamtheprettything_still_01I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House

After this film, I might just give up on these non-scary horror movies. I think they try too hard to be high-concept, and the point is lost along the way — or maybe just lost on me. This film (with a great title, no?) was a hit at the Toronto International Film Festival, and picked up by Netflix, but I’m not really sure why. Netflix seems interested in more commercial stuff than this film, which you might think of as a “horror-film postcard”. It’s the story of a young woman who starts a job as a live-in care-giver to an old author on her deathbed. Each scene is nicely framed, with shots squarely aligned with doorways and dining tables, etc. The house they are in is old enough and quaint enough that even when the scenes flash back to pre-20th-century, no redressing of the set is needed. From the outset we know this is a ghost story because the main character narrates from beyond the grave, telling us that while we see her in her present day, she won’t live to see her next birthday.  There’s a bit too much narration, in my opinion, and while it’s nicely lyrical, the voiceover is distracting. The bulk of the movie, however, is very tranquil and very little actually happens beyond some unexplained thumping, some mysterious black mould on a part of the wall, and a whole lot of eerie, high-pitched notes on the soundtrack. This movie seems more interested in setting the mood to horror rather than actual frights. Even the whole ghost aspect is very mild. The main character, Lily, is self-admittedly prone to fear (which makes it surprising that she’d have taken this job) but it borders on annoyance to watch her get scared at such minor disturbances. Her over-reaction lessens our own fright as viewers. In the end, I don’t really get this movie. It’s pretty in its way, but more than anything, it’s dull. (3 out of 5)