Split

I am an M. Night Shyamalan fan. There, I said it.

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Split
Director and Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy
Released: January 2017
Rated PG-13

So this movie starts out with three teenage girls getting kidnapped by a man named Kevin who has severe dissociative identity disorder. He has 23 personalities living in his head, ranging from a hyperactive 9-year-old boy to an outgoing fashion designer to a motherly British woman. A few of his identities have taken over his mind and are trying to bring out a 24th, which they call “the Beast,” because they believe he’ll have superhuman powers and be able to protect all the people living inside Kevin’s head. The three girls have a part to play in this Beast’s emergence, and, although it’s only vaguely hinted at in the beginning, it doesn’t seem to involve them getting out alive. But one of the girls, named Casey, stays surprisingly level-headed and calm about the whole situation, plotting an escape and figuring out ways to stay one step ahead of her captor throughout the movie.

When I say I’m a Shyamalan fan, I should clarify that, until I watched this movie, I had only seen his first four films: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village. And I loved all of them. (Yes, even The Village. Fight me.) I thought they all employed cool cinematography, good acting and a clever use of symbolism to tell powerful, original stories. They had flaws (especially The Village) but I’d still pay money to see any of them again. I have not seen any of Shyamalan’s more reviled films, such as The Happening, Lady in the Water, or The Last Airbender. Based on what I’ve heard, they deserve their reputation for awfulness. But since I haven’t seen them myself, they haven’t sullied my opinion of M. Night as much as they have for most people.

Still, I didn’t go into this movie thinking it would be the next Sixth Sense. I was curious about it because I was interested to see what a good actor like James McAvoy could do with a challenging character like Kevin/Hedwig/Dennis/Patricia/Barry etc., and because it was the first M. Night movie in over a decade to get more than 70% good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. But I wasn’t expecting to be blown away.

And in some ways, Split lived up to my expectations. As I expected, James McAvoy is incredible in his role. He shifts effortlessly between personalities, giving each of them its own unique mannerisms and body language, and making each one totally believable as a separate person, even though they all look the same. He is incredibly creepy at almost all times, yet it’s still possible to sympathise with him during a lot of scenes, and he’s always fun to watch. I seriously think McAvoy deserves an Oscar nomination for this performance. He won’t get one, because it’s a Shyamalan film, but at least it shows he’s a good enough actor to hopefully get that kind of recognition in the future.

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Etcetera.

The non-Kevin characters are…a little iffy. Fortunately, there aren’t many of them. There’s Kevin’s psychiatrist, who specialises in DID. She has a nice relationship with one or two of his personalities, and gives a lot of helpful exposition about her theories on the disorder, but she’s not super memorable. The two kidnapped girls who aren’t Casey are basically non-entities. We barely learn anything about them by the end of the movie, their actresses give mediocre performances at best, and they consistently make bad decisions. They’re there to fulfill a plot function, and nothing more. And it’s a shame that I, as an audience member, think of them that way, because that’s clearly how most of Kevin’s personalities view them as well. I don’t like agreeing with villains, man!

Casey herself is better. She has a personality. She’s smart, resourceful to the point of being manipulative at times, and she has courage. Of course, that doesn’t always stop her from doing dumb horror-movie things like staring at the horrible thing for too long before running away, but give her props for at least trying to out-think the villain. She also has an interesting connection to said villain that is slowly revealed over the course of the movie, very effectively in my opinion. Anya Taylor-Joy does a decent job in the role, but it’s hard for her to look great next to McAvoy.

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“Professor X? How could you?!”

This movie definitely has its problems. There are some extremely clunky lines of dialogue that sound like nothing a human being would ever say (the psychiatrist being the most frequent offender). The story also drags just a bit in the beginning, with some scenes that seem a little repetitive. And although we hear over and over that Kevin has 24 personalities, we only ever get to see about nine of them. Granted, that’s still impressive for one actor, but it would have been kind of nice to see more.

Then there are the other questionable aspects. Like most Shyamalan movies, I think this one suffered from some bad marketing. The trailers make it look like a horror film. It’s not. (Although it does use some horror tropes.) The premise makes it sound like a psychological thriller. It’s not. (Although it does feel like one at times.) It actually belongs to a different genre altogether, which I’ll get to at the end of the review.

I think it’s important to go into this movie knowing that it’s not meant to be a realistic depiction of what it’s like to have DID. I don’t know much about the disorder myself, and from what I hear there are some varying opinions on it, but I’m fairly sure there’s not a single real psychiatrist who would say that people who have it can “change their body chemistry” to the extent that one personality has diabetes while the others don’t. And I don’t think Shyamalan thought that either, since he seems to have done at least a little bit of research on DID. I mean, at least he got the name right. Most of the times I’ve seen it pop up on TV or in movies, it’s called “multiple personality disorder” and played for laughs. But this movie takes some basic facts about a real, though rare, disorder, and exaggerates and twists them to fit a more fantastical narrative. Some people won’t much like that. Personally, I didn’t mind it, because I thought it worked with the kind of story Shyamalan was trying to tell.

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“I respect the mind’s power over the body. It’s why I do what I do.” Wait, wrong psychiatrist.

It’s also important to go into the movie knowing that it features heavily implied child abuse of various kinds. The gory details are never shown, but what is shown will probably be enough to upset many viewers, especially anyone who’s gone through something similar in real life. Then there are the creepy overtones of a strong but mentally unstable man keeping three teenage girls locked in a basement (and yes, one of his personalities is very much a pervert). So, fair warning: just because it’s PG-13, and not a horror movie, that doesn’t mean it can’t be disturbing.

Overall, though, I’d say the movie’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. It does a great job of building up an atmosphere of suspense, up until the last half hour or so, when all that tension explodes into a white-knuckle climax. Iffy minor characters aside, the interactions between our heroine and villain are always fascinating, increasingly so as more about their pasts is revealed. There are lots of funny moments scattered about to relieve the tension, mostly courtesy of Kevin’s 9-year-old persona. Shyamalan may not be the greatest at writing dialogue, but his visual storytelling is still pretty sharp, in my opinion. A lot of this story is told through images, body language, and symbols, even though the psychiatrist does spout exposition on occasion. Again, McAvoy has to take some of the credit, since he manages to convey a lot more than the script requires, but I think we can blame the direction for some of it as well.

Okay, now it’s time to talk about why I think this really is quite a good movie. As you’d expect from a Shyamalan film, it has a twist at the end: a revelation that completely changes everything about the movie. And it works better than any Shyamalan twist since The Sixth Sense. To me, it was this twist that put the movie over the line between “okay” and “really good.” But there are two problems with it. One is that not everyone who sees the movie will understand it. I think it’s possible to enjoy Split if you don’t fully understand the ending, but it might be harder, since the twist actually goes a long way towards fixing some of those questionable elements I mentioned earlier. And you wouldn’t understand why it made me yell at the screen. The other problem is that I can’t say anything about the twist without spoiling it, and since it was my favourite thing about the movie, that makes this review kind of difficult for me.

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Here’s one case where the Clark Kent glasses actually DO make someone a completely different person.

What I will say about the ending is that I think it works. It’s foreshadowed throughout the movie in subtle ways, it makes sense, and yet I don’t think anyone could have predicted it if they didn’t know about it beforehand. And it opens up a huge number of great possibilities for the sequel it’s definitely getting. That’s all I can say without spoiling things. If you’ve seen the movie (or don’t plan to), and want to know exactly why I loved the ending, you can scroll to the bottom of the review and find out.

Split, despite its flaws, is a creative movie that takes a surprising number of risks. It doesn’t follow the conventions of its genre, and it demands some thought from its audience. Not everyone will enjoy it, but fans of Shyamalan’s earlier work should definitely consider checking it out.

Grade: B+

 

*SPOILERS FOLLOW*

YAY UNBREAKABLE SEQUEL!!!!!! That was my second favourite (or possibly favourite–I go back and forth between it and The Sixth Sense) Shyamalan movie ever, and I am so stoked to see more stories taking place in its universe. Also, with Marvel dominating the big screen these days, there’s never been a better time to introduce a totally unique, understated, philosophical style of superhero movie. Split focuses on the villain more than Unbreakable did (although Elijah Price was by far the most interesting character even in that movie), giving him an origin story rather than introducing a new hero. Although by the end, it looks like Casey could have some superheroic tendencies as well. I hope so, at least, because I felt her character arc was a bit unfinished, and I’d like to see more of it in the sequel.

Since I somehow managed to avoid Internet spoilers before watching it, I didn’t have the slightest inkling that this movie would be a sequel until the last few minutes, but it works perfectly. Like Unbreakable, it’s very preoccupied with the characters’ search for “purpose” in their lives, and reasons for why those lives are so epically screwed up. Kevin, or “the Horde,” as he’s called by the end, comes up with a rather…unique solution, believing that it’s the pain he’s endured that gives his life meaning, and that people who haven’t suffered like he has are less valuable. Like Elijah’s ideas of purpose, it’s an insane idea that still sounds almost plausible enough to be true…especially considering how the hero mirrors the villain in both cases. I look forward to the sequel, which will no doubt find new and fascinating territory to explore with these characters and this universe…if Shyamalan doesn’t screw it up, of course. Fingers crossed!

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Time for some thrilling heroics–and great ’80s music!

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Writer and Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Pom Klementieff, etc., etc…
Released: May 5, 2017
Rated PG-13

Fair warning: The following review assumes that you have seen the first Guardians movie. If you haven’t, go and do so immediately.

After a brief flashback to show Peter Quill’s parents together back on Earth, this sequel begins a few months after the first movie left off. Our heroes are now famous for saving the galaxy, so of course they’re using their reputation to make money. They succeed in their latest mission–killing a tentacled space monster that was eating a precious resource on a planet called The Sovereign–but thanks to Rocket’s kleptomaniac tendencies, they still find themselves being pursued by a horde of angry starships. They’re saved in the nick of time by a mysterious figure…who turns out to be Peter’s long-lost father. Space dad says he’s been searching the galaxy for his son, but he’s not the only one on the group’s tail. Nebula’s still out for revenge on Gamora after the events of the last movie. The Sovereign, good at holding grudges, hire Star-Lord’s old band of Ravagers to hunt down the Guardians. Yondu, captain of said Ravagers, has his hands full with mutinous crew members and his own mixed feelings about the Terran kid he raised. And in the midst of the ensuing hijinks, it becomes clear that the galaxy needs saving again.

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Who you gonna call?

 

Guardians of the Galaxy is one of my favourite parts of the MCU, which is saying something. The first movie took an obscure comic that featured a talking tree, and turned it into the rebellious love child of Star Wars and Firefly, with a soundtrack truly deserving of the name “Awesome Mix Vol. 1.” It made me smile a lot. And most of the other Marvel movies that have been released between 2014 and now haven’t been half bad, either. So this sequel had a lot to live up to.

It did not disappoint.

This movie has everything that made me love the original: humour, memorable characters, crazy action, and dancing. But it also ups the ante in a lot of ways, raising the emotional stakes for all the heroes and giving many of them some much-appreciated character development. Baby Groot is adorable, which is no surprise to anyone who saw the trailers. There are lots of laughs, some truly epic action scenes, and a surprisingly emotional climax. Everything feels bigger and brighter than the last time around.

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Except for Groot. He’s smaller.

But before I get into what I really loved about the movie, let me get my few complaints out of the way. As is the nature of sequels, this one doesn’t feel quite as fresh and original as, well, the original. Yes, we have reached a point in pop culture where the sheer novelty of seeing a raccoon and a talking tree save the galaxy in a big summer blockbuster has worn off a bit. What a time to be alive. I also didn’t find this movie quite as funny as the first one–not because there were fewer jokes, but because more of the jokes were a little on the raunchy side, and to me, raunch is not especially funny. Drax would probably say I have “hang-ups,” but whatever. Even if you like that sort of thing, a few of the earlier jokes seem to be reaching a bit. Finally, this movie has FIVE stingers in the end credits, which seems excessive, even by Marvel standards. And some of them didn’t make a lot of sense to me because I know nothing about the original Guardians of the Galaxy comics.

But Vol. 2 has one very important thing that its predecessor, and most of the other Marvel movies so far, lacked: a good villain. Marvel finally did it! They created a villain whose motive makes sense, who poses a genuine threat to our heroes and their universe, who the audience comes to hate for very good reasons, but who is also kind of fun to watch. And I think it’s largely because of the villain that I found this movie even more emotionally satisfying than its predecessor. It felt like something was really at stake when the Guardians teamed up to fight this new threat, and it brought out their heroic sides beautifully.

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“And if you don’t love me now/You will never love me again…”

But I can’t give all the credit to the villain. Like I said, everyone goes through a lot of character development in this story, even some semi-villainous people from the first movie, like Yondu and Nebula. We get to see more of the screwed-up sisterly relationship between Gamora and Nebula, which is something I really wanted in this movie. We get to see Rocket, and the rest of the team to some extent, trying to figure out how to parent Groot, who does indeed act like a particularly troublesome baby for most of the movie. And we get a lot more of Star-Lord’s backstory, including more glimpses of what it was like to be raised by space pirates, and several big revelations about his extra-terrestrial heritage. Family is a major theme throughout the movie. Everyone’s problems seem to be caused by their families in some way, but familial love is also what gets them through most of those problems. And of course, the Guardians themselves are basically a big dysfunctional family, as they openly acknowledge in this movie. They may argue a lot, but when push comes to shove, they’ll do anything for each other. Which leads to some heartwarming moments and some misting of the ol’ eyeballs.

All this does give Vol. 2 a more serious tone than its predecessor, but it doesn’t get rid of the fun. Even in the most emotional, epic moments, we’ve still got Rocket and Star-Lord arguing about tape, Baby Groot being a troll, a big monologue about David Hasselhoff, and a Pac-Man reference. These are still the funny, oddball characters we know and love from the first movie, but now they have just a little more depth to them than before. And personally, I think that’s a good thing.

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“I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!”

We also get a few new characters this time around. Peter’s alien father, Ego, has a layered personality and a complicated relationship with his offspring that adds a lot to the story. But my favourite addition to the cast is Mantis, an empathic alien who can feel what another person is feeling as soon as she touches them, but still manages to be socially awkward. She’s cute and funny, and she strikes up an amazing friendship with Drax that leads to some of the movie’s funniest scenes.

Of course, the movie does indulge in a few of Marvel’s staple cliches, but even they come across as less annoying than usual. Sure, there’s some gratuitous Dairy Queen product placement, but how can I get mad at a movie for promoting the Zune, of all things? Our heroes do face an army of faceless goons a couple times, but at least this time they’re starship drones instead of living things, and the people controlling them are played for laughs. Even the Stan Lee cameo didn’t annoy me this time around–maybe just because he seems to fit in better in the Guardians’ crazy galaxy.

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‘Nuff said.

I might have to watch the movies again once or twice to decide which Guardians movie is my favourite, but I know it’s a close call. They’re both a ton of fun, and this one has a more uplifting message: Appreciate your family, even if they’re not perfect. And listen to more Fleetwood Mac.

Seriously, I forgot how awesome “The Chain” is.

Grade: A

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

After watching this movie, one question is uppermost in my mind: WHY DON’T I LIVE IN NEW ZEALAND??

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Director and Writer: Taika Waititi
Adapted from: the book “Wild Pork and Watercress” by Barry Crump
Starring: Sam Neill and Julian Dennison
Released: 2016
Rated PG-13 (in the U.S.)

The movie begins when Ricky Baker, a rotund foster kid who fancies himself a gangsta, is placed with a kindly old couple in the New Zealand countryside. Well, the wife is kindly. Her husband, Hector, is kind of standoffish and grumpy, seeing the new kid as a nuisance. So naturally, circumstances conspire to leave Ricky alone with Hec. Afraid of being dumped back into the foster care system (since Hec can’t be expected to raise him on his own), Ricky runs away and gets lost in the bush (New Zealand code for pristine, gorgeous wilderness). Hec rescues him, but a series of misunderstandings conspire to make it look like he’s kidnapped the boy. Pretty soon, the two find themselves outlaws in the wilderness, with the police, the army, and one dangerously obsessed Child Welfare agent hot on their trail.

First, let me talk about the scenery in this movie. I’ve never been there, but between The Lord of the Rings and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I’m now convinced that New Zealand is the most beautiful place on earth. And here we see tons of panning shots of mountains, forests, lakes and flats that seem utterly deserving of Hec’s made-up word, “majestical.” The soundtrack, made up of delightfully quirky techno-pop by the band Moniker, only adds to the beauty of the atmosphere. I’d say it’s worth watching for the scenery alone.

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“It’s majestic.” “That doesn’t sound very special. Majestical’s way better.”

But that’s not all the movie has going for it. It’s also hilarious. Hec and Ricky play off one another wonderfully, and I got a lot of laughs out of their often prickly relationship and their different ideas of what it takes to be a tough guy. Then there’s Paula, the Child Welfare agent, who does such an over-the-top Inspector Javert impression throughout the movie that it’s impossible not to chuckle at her. The pair of outlaws run into several other quirky characters on their adventure, from a spacey priest who keeps mixing his metaphors to…”Psycho Sam,” who dresses like a bush to hide from the government. They are all amazing. Especially Psycho Sam.

But even though I laughed out loud several times during it, I’d hesitate to call this movie a straight-up comedy. In between the laughs, there are several extremely sad moments, and some that tug at the heartstrings for different reasons. Underneath the exaggerated action and adventure, this is a movie about two outcasts who decide to run from a society they feel has rejected them. It’s not just about Ricky teaching Hec what it means to be “skux” (sort of like being a “playa” here in the States) or Hec teaching Ricky how to survive in the wilderness. It’s about both of them helping each other to deal with the different sorrows they’re carrying from equally tragic pasts. Eventually, by becoming “wilderpeople,” they learn that they’re not alone and that the world doesn’t have to be as bad a place as they thought it was before the movie started. Their unlikely friendship is as heartwarming as it gets.

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All the best father-son type relationships start with hunting wild boar.

I was reminded of several other movies while watching this one. The relationship between Hec and Ricky is a lot like the one between Carl and Russell in one of my favourite Pixar movies, Up. The humor and some of the more surreal elements of the story remind me of the Coen brothers’ work, especially O Brother, Where Art Thou? But at the same time, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is very much its own story. I’ve seen quirky comedies before, but never one whose quirks were quite like these. I’ve seen epic, scenery-driven movies before, but not many whose stories seemed so perfectly fitted to the landscape. And I’ve seen plenty of father-son bonding type movies, but this one is so unconventional that it affected me a lot more than most.

Also, I loved Sam Neill in Jurassic Park, obviously, but I didn’t realise what serious acting chops he had until this movie. And I keep forgetting he’s from New Zealand.

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And if you even recognised him under that beard without being told, kudos.

Another note: This movie contains a beautiful Lord of the Rings reference, and I saw it coming a mile away. And it still made me geek out.

The only complaint I can think of is that the movie starts off a bit slow. We’re a good 20-30 minutes in before the plot really gets going. But even then, I’m not sure if I can complain, because so much of that beginning was used to develop an important character without whom the movie wouldn’t be the same. The tone is all over the place, with deeply tragic scenes constantly being followed up by something goofy and over the top–but that just makes both the humour and the emotion even more effective. It’s a masterfully told story with a great script. And the director’s next project is going to be Thor: Ragnarok, which gives me an enormous amount of hope for that film.

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If he can do action like this on a $77,000 budget, imagine what he’ll do with Marvel’s bajillions!

So in the end, I think it’s only proper to sum up my feelings about this movie the way Ricky would. In haiku.

Ricky and Hector
Outlaws living the skux life–
Grade A adventure.

 

 

Batman Beyond

I am on a mission to experience every amazing TV show and movie that the DC Animated Universe has to offer. And the next stop on that journey is Batman Beyond.

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Batman Beyond
Writers and Directors: Loads, but mainly Butch Lukic, Dan Riba, Alan Burnett and Paul Dini
Starring: Will Friedle and Kevin Conroy
Aired: 1999-2001

Batman Beyond is the sequel series to Batman: The Animated Series, taking place in the same continuity. It starts off many years after Batman’s last chronological appearance in Justice League Unlimited, with a prologue that shows his decision to hang up the cowl after his failing health forces him to pick up a gun to defend himself. Twenty years later, Gotham is as crime-ridden as ever, and Bruce Wayne is a recluse with only his guard dog for company–until he runs into a teenager named Terry McGinnis, who stumbles upon the Batcave. At first Terry agrees to keep the secret to himself. But when his father is murdered for knowing too much about the dealings of a corrupt CEO, he decides to steal the Bat-suit (which has received a few upgrades over the years) and bring the killers to justice. Bruce isn’t happy about this at first, but once he sees Terry in action and understands his intentions, he agrees to teach him the ways of crimefighting. The rest of the show follows Terry’s adventures as the new Batman, battling foes that range from a gang of teenage Joker wannabes to the radioactive supervillain Blight, all while trying to keep his grades up. He occasionally clashes with Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon, picks up a part-time sidekick named Max, and is constantly guided by Bruce’s expert, if grumpy, advice.

This is actually the last major show in the DCAU that I watched, and not just because it’s a little harder to find than any of the others. I was honestly pretty reluctant to try out a show about a Batman who wasn’t Bruce Wayne or even any other member of the established Bat-family. How could some random kid from the future ever hope to be worthy of the name?

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And one with an emo haircut at that!

Well, as it turns out…he kind of is. Terry’s a compelling character in his own right, with a sarcastic sense of humour, a bit of a rebellious streak, and the same upright morals and compassion that helped make the original Batman great. And since the we never really got an origin story for the Dark Knight in this universe (except for the flashbacks in Mask of the Phantasm), it’s nice to be able to watch someone becoming Batman. Terry starts out as a hotheaded kid with a super suit and some natural athletic ability, but over the course of the show, he gradually becomes a better detective and fighter until he’s almost at the level of his mentor. Note that I said almost. Thankfully, said mentor is still a major character who appears in almost every episode. Even though he’s no longer the protagonist, Bruce has lost none of his awesomeness with age, and he delivers some of the show’s best lines and coolest scenes.

One of my favourite things about B:TAS was its dark, noir-style atmosphere. Atmosphere is also one of Beyond‘s biggest strengths, but this show ditches the noir in favour of cyberpunk. We’ve got flying cars (including the Batmobile!), super-advanced robots, futuristic slang, gene splicing as a fashion trend, and a city-scape that could have been ripped straight from Blade Runner. I love it. Not only does it provide a cool backdrop for the action, this setting also allows the writers to explore neat sci-fi concepts like artificial intelligence, instant gratification technology, the morals of messing with DNA, and dangers like nuclear waste and pollution.

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Gotham’s a lot…shinier, these days.

The funny thing about this show is that, from what I can find on the Internet, it seems to have been conceived as a way to get younger kids into Batman–thus the idea of making him a high school kid. But in addition to having just as much nuanced, mature writing as its predecessor, it’s actually far less child-friendly. It features lots of gruesome deaths that occur just off-screen, more brutal violence in general, and lots and lots of drug metaphors. Unlike in B:TAS, drugs are never mentioned by name (isn’t it weird how censorship changes over time?) but several episodes show the consequences of addiction in rather graphic detail by inventing sci-fi substitutes for real illicit substances. Many of the villains are still tragic, but this show really drives home the fact that “tragic” isn’t always the same thing as “sympathetic.” Beyond villains have a tendency to act like they could be redeemed, up until the last second when you realise that they were either faking those good impulses or they’re just much too far gone.

When you come down to it, this show is good for the same reason that B:TAS and every other show in the DCAU is good. It’s smartly written, constantly going beyond (heh) the basic superhero premise of “good guy fights bad guys” to explore deeper questions about what makes a hero and a villain. The voice acting is top-notch as always, as is the animation. And the theme song…well, like the one for B:TAS, it does a great job of establishing the story and the universe where it takes place in just a few seconds. And in the words of Terry, it’s “unbearably cool.” Take a look-see:

My problems with this series can basically be boiled down to three. 1) It establishes that Bruce and Barbara Gordon were in a relationship at one point. If I were to list all the reasons I think that pairing is sick and wrong, it would take up the rest of this review. I will never understand why cartoon writers are so obsessed with making it a thing. So in my mind, it never happened, and Barbara is just losing her memory in her old age. 2) Speaking of relationships, this show focuses on Terry’s just a wee bit more than I would like. One of the many things I love about the original Batman is that he never had a steady girlfriend who knew him as Bruce Wayne, so he never had to do what I call the “secret identity dance,” where the hero constantly has to make excuses to a love interest about why they’re sneaking out every night. Terry does a lot of that, and it’s rather dull as conflicts go. His girlfriend, Dana, is also rather dull. 3) I wish the show could have done more with Blight. He’s something of an archnemesis to Terry in the first season, and an effective one, but he just kind of disappears after that. Seems like a bit of a waste to me.

But those are minor issues, in the grand scheme of things. For the most part, this is an excellent show that lives up to its predecessor in almost every way.

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“Very good then, Mr. McGinnis. Welcome to my world.”

A note on formatting: In the version of the show that I watched (which I streamed from Amazon), several of the episodes are listed out of order. They’re self-contained enough that it’s not usually a big deal, but once in a while a character will mention something from a previous episode that you won’t get if you’re watching in the Amazon order. Also, like B:TAS, this show never got a proper finale during its own run, but it does have a movie (Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker) and its storyline gets wrapped up for good in an episode of Justice League Unlimited called “Epilogue.”

Whatever order you watch it in, I highly recommend this show, especially for fans of the original Batman series.

Grade: A

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Yes, there’s an Indiana Jones movie I haven’t seen before. Clearly that must be rectified.

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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz
Starring: Harrison Ford and some other people
Released in: 1984
Rated PG (because PG-13 wasn’t invented yet)

So just in case you don’t know the story, this movie starts with everyone’s favourite disaster-prone archaeologist delivering an artefact to some Chinese mobsters in Shanghai. Naturally, things go wrong, and he ends up escaping on a plane with a little kid named Short Round and a living migraine named Willie Scott. They crash-land in India, where they meet some villagers whose children have all been taken by a local ruler, along with a sacred stone rumoured to have magic powers. Then the plot really kicks in, as Indy  decides to go on a quest to find and return the stone.

I love the Indiana Jones movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of the first “grown-up” movies I was allowed to see as a kid, and both it and The Last Crusade have always been family favourites at my house. (I also saw Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in theatres, but…that one’s less of a favourite.) However, I was never allowed to see Temple of Doom as a kid, and it’s one of many movies I never quite got around to seeing as an adult. Until now, that is.

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Yeah…can’t imagine why my parents didn’t want me to see this as a kid.

To be honest, it struck me as a bit of an odd movie. Plot-wise, it’s much like all the other Indiana Jones movies: there’s a big opening scene with lots of punching, Indiana has to go search for a lost treasure, evil folks get in the way, there’s a bit of romance going on with the lead lady, they run into some freaky supernatural stuff, and it all leads up to a big climactic fight scene and a happy ending, although Indy still doesn’t get the treasure. But its tone is very different from any other entry in the franchise, and I think that’s what weirded me out so much. For about the first third, it almost feels like a slapstick comedy. All the Indiana Jones movies have a certain amount of humour, but this one starts out feeling downright goofy. There’s a fight scene where Indy shish-kebabs someone with an actual kebab, followed by a car chase with a little kid driving the car while making puns in bad English, followed by a plane crash where everyone survives by means of a physics-defying inflatable raft, and so on. And then somewhere around the half-hour mark, the tone completely changes into something very dark and disturbing, with a lot more gore than any of the other films had. Then, for the final third, it switches back to the exciting Indy action we know and love. All three tones work fine on their own, but together, they’re a bit of a weird combination.

Still, I’ve always heard this movie described as the low point of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, so I was pleasantly surprised by it in a lot of ways. The story itself is every bit as exciting as any of the others, it has several amazing action scenes, and you just can’t go wrong with young Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones. He’s the perfect action hero, and he’s also quite funny, as I often forget between viewings. Every good Indiana Jones movie has two or three moments that make me smile just because of how…Indiana Jones-y they are. This movie has them, too: the part where he dives under a collapsing door to grab his hat, the entire mine cart sequence, “Prepare to meet Kali…IN HELL!”, etc. Classic Indy.

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You can keep your Tom Hiddlestons. This is what a real Hollywood heartthrob looks like. 

Granted, this movie is, shall we say, less than PC. It’s made clear that the evil Thuggee cult Indy encounters has nothing to do with actual Hinduism (it also has nothing to do with the real-life Thuggee cult, but whatevs), but the movie still gets away with a much more offensive portrayal of another culture than you’d see in most blockbusters today. Then again, the other two movies showed us a pretty laughable caricature of Christian mythology, and I didn’t let that ruin them for me. It’s Indiana Jones–you can’t expect much in the way of historical and cultural accuracy.

In the end, I do have to agree with the majority opinion that this is the worst of the trilogy, but only for one reason: WILLIE. My word. She is easily one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever seen in a movie. I had heard of her infamous screaming voice before, but I didn’t realise she uses that voice throughout the entire movie. She contributes almost nothing to the plot, half the time it doesn’t even make sense for her to be there (why did Indy decide to bring her on a dangerous mission, again?), and she’s either screaming or whining in every other line of dialogue. For most of the movie, Indy seems as annoyed by her as the audience, so their “romance,” if you can call it that, feels incredibly forced. It wouldn’t be so bad if she was a minor comic relief character, but no, she’s in almost every scene of the movie, distracting from Indy’s awesomeness by screeching about her nails. Within the first five minutes, I was thinking, “This chick needs to die in a fire.” And when she actually gets a chance to die in a fire later in the movie, spoiler alert, she gets rescued! I’ve never been more disappointed to see the plans of an evil death cult foiled. The only good thing I can say about Willie is that she made me appreciate Marion from the first movie all the more.

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She’s like Jar Jar Binks. Only blonde.

But there is one aspect of Temple of Doom that I think is actually an improvement on the other movies. For once, in this movie, Indiana Jones does something genuinely heroic–on purpose. Usually he’s chasing a treasure more or less for his own gain, and then the Nazis just happen to get in the way, so he has to fight them. But in this movie, he takes a huge risk in order to rescue a bunch of kids from slavery, without necessarily expecting a reward. It’s nice to see a nobler side to our normally selfish treasure hunter, and it makes it even easier to root for him in his more Willie-free adventures. And even though I thought it was a little weird at first for him to have a 12-year-old sidekick, I also found his relationship with Short Round to be pretty endearing by the end.

Overall, I enjoyed this movie. It’s not as much fun as the other two in the original trilogy, but it’s much better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull–or, indeed, several other modern action movies I could name. And now that I’ve seen all the movies in the series, I feel like I can finally call myself a proper Indiana Jones fan.

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Cue amazing John Williams music.

Grade: B

The Babadook

“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
Well, NOW I can’t. Thanks, movie.

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Director and writer: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman
Released in: 2014 (in the U.S., anyway)
Not Rated

The Babadook is about Amelia, a single mother whose 6-year-old son, Samuel, is a bit of a problem child. He brings homemade weapons to school, freaks out other kids, and constantly has tantrums where he screams about monsters coming to get him. This does a number on his mother’s emotional state, which was already pretty bad because she’s still grieving for her husband, who was killed in a tragic accident several years ago. One night, Sam finds a new story on his shelf, called “Mister Babadook,” that his mum doesn’t remember buying for him. It turns out to be a creepy little pop-up book about a monster in a top hat that will do all sorts of vague and terrible things to you if you “let him in.” Naturally, it scares the crap out of Sam, and it eventually starts getting under Amelia’s skin, too, as she begins to imagine (or think she imagines) seeing and hearing the Babadook everywhere she goes.  And things get worse from there.

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Moral of the story: Don’t read mysteriously appearing books to your kids.

 

There’s a line in A Grief Observed, which is C.S. Lewis’s story of how he lost his wife, that says, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.” And indeed, speaking as someone who’s felt relatively little of either, it seems that the two emotions do cause people to do very similar things. We avoid talking about things we’ve lost just as we avoid talking about things that scare us. Both grief and fear can lead to sleeplessness and poor decision making. And both can drive ordinarily decent people to do very indecent things.

That’s basically the premise behind this movie. Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, I think I can say that the monster is strongly tied to our main characters’ feelings of grief and resentment. So it seems oddly fitting that it’s also bed-wettingly terrifying. Hagrid was clearly involved in naming this thing, because only the guy who named a giant three-headed dog “Fluffy” could possibly have come up with a cutesy name like “Mister Babadook” for the face of all my nightmares. And keep in mind that this thing is rarely shown outside of the drawings in the book that introduced it. It doesn’t jump out at you from the shadows. It doesn’t rip people’s heads off or burst out of anyone’s chest. In fact, there’s very little blood or violence at all in the movie. All the scares come from places that are easy to relate to–weird noises in the house, a family member acting strange, lack of sleep, and, of course, the prospect of losing someone you love. And because of that, this is easily the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.

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Nope. I’m out. Bye.

Not that I watch many scary movies. Most of the time, based on the trailers and posters I’ve seen, horror films just seem to be about uninteresting characters getting killed in interesting ways, and that has no appeal for me. Besides, even if the story’s good, there’s a limit to the amount of blood and tentacles I can take. But I heard this movie described as more of an allegorical character study than a monster movie, and that got me intrigued. Besides, I’ve been trying to watch more foreign films and more films directed by women, and this one checks both boxes. So I checked it out, and, even though it shaved an hour or two off my beauty sleep, I’m glad I did.

For one thing, it’s just a really, really well-made movie. The acting is top-notch. Amelia goes through quite a few emotional transformations throughout the story, and some of them could have come off pretty cheesy and terrible if Essie Davis hadn’t absolutely nailed them. But she did. The kid is also pretty great for a pint-sized actor, and although he can be annoying at times, it always feels intentional. The writing helps a lot, too. This is one movie where it pays to listen to the dialogue, because several seemingly innocent things are said early on that end up being tremendously important later. A lot is also said symbolically, or through subtext. This is not a movie that’s interested in spelling everything out for its audience. There were several times when I really had to use my brain to figure out what was going on–and there are a couple details I still don’t completely get. Then there’s the atmosphere. Even when nothing strange is happening onscreen, the way things are shot, the sounds we hear, and the music combine to give the movie a very surreal quality. It results in an incredibly suspenseful story that never stops building tension, from the first shot to the climax.

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No monsters under the bed…yet.

But none of that means anything if you don’t have a good story, and I think The Babadook does. It’s a very relatable and, dare I say, realistic take on something that many people have experienced, which is grief over the loss of a loved one. And although for the most part it’s as sad as it is scary, in the end it has something rather positive to say about that experience. It shows how destructive it can be to let one’s negative emotions take control, but it also shows that a little love and kindness can go a long way in healing the damage.

Things I had to look up:
This is an Australian movie, so I will admit that I did some googling to see if the Babadook was based on an actual Australian legend. Nope, the writer made it up. It is an anagram for “a bad book,” though, which…is fitting. Yeesh. Also, apparently shooting a fully functional crossbow on a playground doesn’t get you suspended from Australian school. It just gets the teachers to watch you more closely.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Babadook. It’s extremely scary, but it also made me think. I like movies that make me think. I also like movies that make me feel empathy for other people–in this case, particularly for those who have to deal with loss every day. A movie that can bring out those kinds of emotions is worth a few scares in my book.

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“I love you. And I always will.”

Grade: A-

My Faves: The Prestige

Most of the time, my M.O. on this blog is to review movies that are new to me. Not necessarily to anyone else, but new to me. Sometimes, though, I feel the need to rave about a movie that I’ve seen many times, or even grown up with, because it’s one of my faves. And since I currently find myself between televisions, and there’s not much playing at the theatres near me, I figure this is the perfect time to start.

Christopher Nolan is my favourite director. I love every movie I’ve seen by him, which is all of them except for Memento and Following. But if I had to pick my favourite Nolan movie of all time, I’d probably have to go with The Prestige.

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For those who haven’t seen it, this is a movie about two magicians in Victorian-era London who start out as friends, but become enemies when one of them sees his wife die and blames the other. They start a rivalry that becomes increasingly deadly as each magician goes to more and more desperate lengths to destroy the other’s career.

There are so many reasons why this movie is amazing. One is the acting. The main characters are played by Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine, and they’re all amazing as usual. Christian Bale, in particular, gives the most impressive performance I’ve ever seen from him. Granted, I haven’t seen all of his more acclaimed performances, but the role he has in this movie is so incredibly challenging, and he pulls it off so well, that it’s hard to imagine anything topping it. Also, this is one of the few movies where you get to hear his real accent, so that’s fun. Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine are also amazing, but then, when are they ever not?

This is probably the closest we’ll ever get to seeing Batman fight Wolverine. I’ll take it.

I really like movies that make me think, which is a big reason why I love Nolan so much. Like many of his other films, this one left me scratching my head, trying to piece together the clues the director left throughout the story, and really wanting to watch it again immediately. But whereas movies like Inception and Interstellar felt like puzzles to be solved, this movie feels more like a mystery. Everything hinges on the characters’ motivations, and how far they’re willing to go to get what they want, and it all builds up to a truly chilling reveal. The movie’s more than 10 years old, but I still won’t spoil it, because if there’s anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the movie, I would hate to be the person who ruined their experience. It’s one of the best-executed twist endings I’ve ever seen.

I think one reason the ending works so well is the same reason the magicians’ tricks work. At the beginning, Michael Caine explains the three parts of a magic trick: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige (terms which I’m pretty sure were made up for this movie, by the way). They correspond perfectly to the three-act structure of the film. We’re shown an “ordinary” situation–two rivals who want revenge–and then the story does something to it, twisting it in an unexpected way. And then at the end, we get the prestige, in which everything is explained and resolved. Throughout the movie, the screenplay and cinematography use sleight of hand and misdirection just like the two magicians do, to make you think you’re seeing one thing when you’re actually seeing something else. And the resolution, just like in every magic trick, is a lot simpler than you might expect.

“Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it, because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.”

I tend to judge screenplays by how well I remember them after seeing a movie. And there are so many lines in this movie that stuck with me long after I watched it. It only took one viewing for me to be able to quote Michael Caine’s opening monologue almost verbatim. There are so many other memorable lines, too: “Exact science is not an exact science.” “No one cares about the man in the box.” “Are you watching closely?” Etc., etc. And hidden within that great dialogue is a ton of subtle foreshadowing and symbolism that you don’t always pick up until the third or fourth viewing.

I also like this movie because I’m a big fan of steampunk–the idea of incorporating sci-fi elements into a Victorian setting. There aren’t enough good movies set in a steampunk world, but The Prestige is one of them. While it doesn’t go too crazy with the gears and gyros, it definitely has some strong steampunk elements to it. Because, oh yeah, did I mention Nikola Tesla is in this movie? Played by David Bowie, of all people? Yep. Anytime you see Tesla in a story that is not based on historical fact, you know some weird, brilliant steampunk stuff is coming. If ever there was a mad scientist in real life, it was Tesla. I love that guy.

“Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier. What you want is simply expensive.”

But anyway, the heart of this movie is not in its magic tricks and decorations. Once you make it through all the various layers of mystery, it becomes a story about some guys who let an obsession get the better of them. There’s the obvious commentary on the dangers of seeking revenge, but personally, I think this is much more than a revenge movie. It really seems more like an exploration of the dark side of art, especially the performing arts–how the desire to make something beautiful can sometimes drive creators to do very ugly things.

This is a dark movie–probably Nolan’s darkest, that I’ve seen, aside from Insomnia. There’s not really a “hero” to root for, since all the main characters do a lot of awful things, and the ending isn’t exactly the “happily ever after” type. But for me at least, it touches emotional chords that very few other movies do. Usually, when you see movies about making art (which is essentially what this movie is), they portray it as this magical, transformative thing that brings all kinds of beauty to the world. Not that many movies have the guts to point out that art (not to mention the artists who make it) has an ugly side. It can be manipulative and deceptive and even deadly. And is it worth it, in the end? Do we love art and entertainment because it makes us better people and shows us more about the world, or do we just “want to be fooled?”

“The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.”

I don’t know, but every time I watch this movie, I find another piece of it to analyse. It’s a multi-layered story in which every layer is packed with great acting, great writing, great cinematography, and Nikola Tesla as portrayed by David Bowie. I can’t stress that last part enough, because honestly, where else are you ever going to see something as crazy awesome as that?

I’m not going to give grades in my Faves reviews, because it should just be assumed that they’re all A+ unless stated otherwise. This one is truly a masterpiece, and it deserves just as much love as any other Nolan movie, if not more so. If you haven’t seen The Prestige, I’d highly recommend doing so. If you have seen it, I’d highly recommend watching it again.

And again, and again, and again, and again…