Solo: A Star Wars Story

Looks like Disney put out a new Star Wars movie last week.

Unless it was in 2012. I’m a little confused, to be honest.

Image result for john carter

John Carter
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writers: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon
Starring: Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins
Music By: Michael Giacchino
Released: 2012
Rated PG-13 (for very mild language, blood that is mostly blue, and offscreen youngling murder)

This space opera tells the story of a lovable rogue who gets reluctantly caught up in a war between aliens, falls in love with a princess, and becomes best friends with a dog-like monster. More specifically, John Carter is a bitter Confederate soldier-turned-prospector who’s hunting for gold in the Wild West when he comes across a glowing amulet that transports him to Mars–or, as the locals call it, Barsoom. Thanks to the lower gravity, he’s extra strong and can jump extra high on Mars, which helps endear him to  a tribe of green, four-armed warriors. But when he bumps into a conveniently human-looking princess on the run from her fiancé, a warlord who wants to take over the planet, he quickly finds himself having to choose sides in a war between Mars’s two major cities.

There are two reasons I thought I might like this movie going in. First, I enjoy those early sci-fi novels, written when actual scientists still thought there might be canals on Mars and rainforests on Venus, and nobody had a clue what space travel would be like. And this movie is based on one of the earliest examples of that type of book–A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (same guy who wrote the original Tarzan). Second, I knew this movie was a huge box office flop when it came out, and, historically, most of my favourite Disney movies–Treasure Planet, The Rocketeer, The Emperor’s New Groove, etc.–have also flopped to one degree or another.

Image result for the rocketeer
I wasn’t the only person who saw this, right?

And I did find a lot to like about this particular Star Wars movie. Some of its CGI hasn’t aged well (I had the urge to laugh every time John Carter hopped into the air on invisible wires), but it still manages to paint a beautiful and believable picture of its Martian fantasy world. Even though the movie throws a lot of alien culture at the audience in a short amount of time, it does so almost completely through visual storytelling, not exposition. For example, nobody ever explains the four-armed aliens’ method of reproduction, which is important for one of the many subplots–John Carter just stumbles across a nest of babies, and we then see how they’re integrated into the tribe’s society. Even some more complicated concepts, like the actual method by which our hero gets zapped to Mars, get about two lines of explanatory dialogue at most–the audience is just expected to pick up the idea based on what happens onscreen. Most sci-fi and fantasy movies have at least one long exposition scene, so I found this movie’s commitment to show, not tell, rather refreshing.

Of course, the downside is that the audience is also expected to accept a whole lot of ridiculous names being thrown at us by actors (and CGI monsters) with absolutely straight faces. Tharks and therns and Jeddaks and a city called Helium and a magical chant containing a word that sounds exactly like “wheeze”…it’s a lot to take, even for somebody like me, who thoroughly enjoyed Doctor Strange‘s magic artefacts. I imagine that’s part of the reason this movie didn’t do well at the box office, apart from its unnecessarily bland title. Without a built-in fanbase, it’s hard for Hollywood to get people interested in a story with so many ridiculous names and places to keep track of.

Image result for john carter
At least it’s no Jar-Jar.

Despite all that, I was always able to follow the story, and by the time John Carter got to Mars (which admittedly took a few minutes too long), I was invested. The lead actor isn’t bad…although he does have one of those faces I automatically associate with gym-loving guys who use the terms “beta” and “–tard” unironically. I don’t imagine he would do well in a role that required nuance and complexity, but fortunately this one doesn’t. He’s just a regular action hero with a very simple character arc, and it works.

The other characters largely make up for the hero’s blandness. Princess Dejah Thoris, despite having yet another goofy name, is really quite likable and gets to do a lot more than I was expecting from a damsel in distress. But my favourite characters were the two main Tharks (the aforementioned four-armed aliens), who are, weirdly enough, played by two of the more famous actors in the movie. Theirs was the most interesting out of all the subplots woven through this story, and they were the characters I connected with the most on an emotional level.

Image result for john carter
Way more than these two, that’s for sure.

Oh, and the dog-alien was cute, I guess. It seems there always needs to be a dog-alien when Disney is involved.

John Carter is very much in the vein of all the old, pulpy adventure movies where a muscle-y guy goes to an exotic place, punches some monsters while shirtless, kills the bad guys, gets the girl, and saves the priceless artefact (or is the other way round?). For what it is, it’s very well-made and accomplishes pretty much everything it sets out to do. If you enjoy that kind of story, or if you just like seeing fresh visual takes on alien worlds, there’s a very good chance you’ll enjoy this movie.

Image result for john carter
I mean, I’m always up for a good arena monster fight.

Personally, though, I think its greatest weakness is that it’s just okay. It’s not bad, but it’s not amazing, either. And I think that’s why it failed so hard at the box office. The other Star Wars movies can get away with occasional mediocrity because they have the words “Star Wars” in their titles, and most people will pay money for anything even tangentially associated with that label. Because this movie left those words out of its title, it didn’t have a gigantic fanbase willing to accept whatever nonsense was thrown on the screen, so it would have needed to be Lord of the Rings-level awesome in order to turn a profit. And it just wasn’t.

After watching it, though, I’m honestly kind of sad we’ll never get a sequel. I’d like to see more of Barsoom and its creatures and technology. Maybe I’ll have to check out the books.

Grade: B

Oh, and maybe someday I’ll review Solo for real. Didn’t feel like paying theatre prices for it.

Advertisements

Sunshine

Don’t look directly at the sun, kids. It’s bad for you.

Image result for sunshine film

Sunshine
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Alex Garland
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, etc.
Music By: John Murphy
Released: 2007
Rated R

Apparently, 50 years after this movie was made, the Sun is going to stop working, and the Earth is going to get cold, threatening the existence of the human race. Our story is about a group of eight astronauts aboard the Icarus 2 (the previous Icarus mission having failed, probably due to its terrible name), who are on their way to fix the Sun by throwing a big bomb at it. (Shockingly, this film was made by Brits, not Americans.) Along the way, something goes wrong with the mission, forcing the astronauts to make contact with the previous Icarus ship, where the crew may or may not still be alive.

This movie is more than 10 years old, was made by an Academy Award-winning director and stars some very big Hollywood names (although in fairness, it was made when Chris Evans’ most famous superhero role was still the Human Torch), yet it took me until late last year to find out it existed. I’m always game for trying a new sci-fi movie I know nothing about, and I’m going through Captain America withdrawals, so I decided to pick it up pretty much based on those facts alone.

And…it turned out to be a bit of an odd pick. Based on the plot description, it seems like it should have been a goofy B-movie, and it certainly isn’t. Based on its cinematography and writing, it seems like it should be a philosophical sci-fi epic, but it never quite gets there, either. It’s some kind of weird hybrid of the two. A…B-epic, perhaps?

Image result for sunshine film
Got your SPF 9000 handy?

Let’s start with the setting. I’m no astrophysicist, but I’m fairly certain most of the “science” presented by this movie is nonsense. Just for starters, NASA scientists predict the Sun won’t start “dying” for at least a couple billion years, barring some very unlikely accidents, and when it does die, it’s far more likely to expand, heating up the Earth, than to cool and cause another ice age. And that’s not even getting into some of the ridiculous ways space behaves in this movie.

But Sunshine does try very hard to create a scenario that makes sense, if not according to real-world physics, then at least according to its own internal logic. Much of the first act is dedicated to showing the audience exactly how everything works on the Icarus 2: how its massive radiation shield has to be aligned perfectly toward the Sun to avoid catastrophic damage, how it gets oxygen from a garden fed by recycled water, how the ship’s advanced computer has to be immersed in coolant in order to function, etc. All these things become important later on, and the set-up pays off because the way they work remains consistent throughout the movie. Everything is presented in a way that seems plausible, even if it wouldn’t work in real life.

Image result for sunshine film oxygen garden
Oxygen gardens seem like a sensible thing to have in space, though…

Another reason the lack of actual science in this movie didn’t bother me too much is that it has a pretty surreal feeling throughout, which I’m pretty sure is intentional. There are short dream sequences; a scene that keeps getting interrupted by quick, almost subliminal shots of dead characters; and one character who always appears blurred and distorted on the screen. Then the third act happens, and things get really wonky. But I think the sound is more to blame for that surreal feeling than the visuals.

The soundtrack is probably my favourite thing about the movie. I had already heard some of it before–the climactic track “Adagio in D Minor” has been recycled in numerous trailers, and even some other official soundtracks. But in the movie itself, the music blends with the noises of the ship and of space (yes, this movie occasionally has noise in space, just go with it), and it creates a very creepy, moody atmosphere that perfectly fits the story’s tone.

That atmosphere leads to a constant feeling of claustrophobic tension. Almost the entire movie takes place inside a stark, badly-lit spaceship with little room to move…and when we join up with our crew, they’ve already been together inside it for months. It’s no wonder tensions are already running high at the beginning, especially since the crew has just passed outside the range of communication with Earth and the resident psychiatrist has an unhealthy obsession with the Sun.

“Kaneda, what do you see?”

Like any self-respecting sci-fi drama about a small crew trapped and alone in space, this one features quite a few characters who go a little nuts. But characters in this movie tend to go nuts only in a way that involves unsafe sungazing. When it’s not taking place inside a drab spaceship, the film is full of beautiful shots of the Sun and extreme close-ups of human eyes looking at the Sun. Our nearest star is treated almost like a living thing in this movie: a siren beckoning some characters to their doom, while promising some sort of enlightenment to others.

And throughout the movie, I had the feeling the storytellers were trying to say something through that Sun-obsession theme. At one point, a character who’s gone insane starts babbling about how the Sun is God, and He wants humanity to end…but it doesn’t really go beyond that, and the insane character is a little hard to take seriously anyway. The ending, while somewhat ambiguous, seems to suggest there really is something enlightening or spiritual about coming face-to-face with the Sun, but it just isn’t expanded upon as much as I’d hoped. Unless I’m just too stupid to get it…which is always a possibility.

Image result for sunshine film mace
One lesson I definitely took away from this movie: Mercury is super cool!

A theme that’s better developed in this movie is the idea of weighing one person’s life against many. From the beginning, all the characters are well aware of two things: the extreme danger of their mission, and the fact that it is the “last, best hope” for mankind. From the moment things start to go wrong, the movie is basically a long series of trolley problems, forcing the characters to make increasingly drastic choices to ensure their mission doesn’t fail. The right choice always seems pretty clear, at least to the audience: after all, what is one person’s life compared to all the billions of people who live on Earth, and will live there in the future? But despite knowing the risks beforehand, some characters don’t react well to the idea of dying or letting a crewmate die, and at least one goes way too far in the other direction. (After all, what are billions of tiny human-sized lives compared to the Sun and the vastness of space?)

Against all odds, this movie actually did ease my Captain America withdrawals, because Chris Evans plays the most competent character in it. Mace, the computer engineer, has some anger management issues, but he’s the only member of the cast who consistently puts the safety of the human race above his personal feelings (including his regard for his own life or the lives of his crewmates). He always does the most pragmatic, logical thing in every situation, which is rather refreshing to see in a movie like this. I wouldn’t be too surprised if this role helped Evans land his spot in the MCU. Of course Cillian Murphy’s character, the physicist Capa, is no slouch in the hero department either, even if he causes as many problems as he fixes.

Image result for sunshine film capa
“Is it the surface of the Sun? Every time I shut my eyes, it’s always the same…”

Overall, I enjoyed this movie quite a bit–mainly thanks to the music, the creative visuals, and the acting, which is great across the board. But I constantly felt like it was trying to say something important, and I don’t think it ever quite got the words out. It feels like a movie that could have been right up there with the greatest sci-fi classics of all time…if a few story elements were tweaked and the filmmakers thought a little harder about what they wanted to say. As it is, it’s an exciting flick with some very memorable scenes, but not necessarily a must-see.

Unless you have a powerful need to see Scarecrow fighting Captain America. Then you don’t want to miss it.

Grade: B

Final Space

Now that Infinity War is out, I’m free to talk about stuff that isn’t Marvel. And what better way to transition out of those giant box office juggernauts than with a relatively obscure cartoon by a D-list YouTube celebrity?

Image result for final space

Final Space
Creators: Olan Rogers, David Sacks
Starring: Olan Rogers, David Tennant, Tika Sumpter, etc.
Music By: Shelby Merry and Jake Sidwell
Rated TV-14

Gary Goodspeed is finishing up a five-year prison sentence in deep space. He’s only had a crew of annoying robots for company during that time, so he’s overjoyed when an adorable little green alien, whom he dubs Mooncake, bumps into his ship, the Galaxy One. Unfortunately, it turns out that Mooncake is actually a planet-destroying super-weapon, and the evil Lord Commander is after it for nefarious purposes. Gary teams up with a grumpy bounty hunter named Avocato and a scientist named Quinn (who also happens to be his unrequited crush) to protect Mooncake and save the Earth–nay, the universe–from Lord Commander’s schemes.

Image result for final space chapter 10
“‘Universe’ sounds way cooler.”

Pretty much ever since I discovered YouTube, Olan Rogers has been among my favourite YouTubers. Whether it was his early skits with the BalloonShop channel, his later skits on his own channel, or dramatic stories about his life, his goofy-yet-wholesome brand of comedy has always been one of the few things guaranteed to cheer me up whenever I’m feeling down. If you’ve never heard this man tell a story, you should remedy that immediately. Here’s a link to a classic to get you started.

So naturally, I was thrilled when I found out this guy had made it big and started his own cartoon show on TBS. And for the most part, Final Space is exactly what I would have expected from Rogers. The humour is very much in the same vein as his YouTube stuff, relying on odd euphemisms (“Dear Heavenly Lightning Lord!”), other colourful turns of phrase (“I didn’t expect that hurt coin deposit in my sadness savings!”), and general absurdity. But it also throws in a lot of morbid, black comedy…which mostly works even better in the world where this story takes place.

And the world of Final Space looks great. Heck, space itself is the best-looking thing in this show. The character designs may be cartoon-y, but the backdrops, the spaceships, the supernovae and the occasional apocalyptic destruction just look like beautiful sci-fi art. The soundtrack, which I think I can best describe as indie space rock, adds several layers of atmosphere and perfectly complements every emotional moment. It’s one of the better soundtracks I’ve heard in a show, cartoon or otherwise.

Image result for final space
“Play the good stuff, HUE!”

But the best thing about the show is easily its characters. Gary is a bit of an acquired taste (even more so, I imagine, for anyone unfamiliar with Olan’s style of humour), but he’s often hilarious, and always a great guy at heart. Quinn is all the heroism with none of the stupidity, Avocato is as cool as he is cat-like, and David Tennant, again, shows his skill at creating villains I love to hate with his unrecognisable Lord Commander voice. Even the show’s robots have a wide range of personalities, from the everlasting annoyance of KVN to the patient, loyal HUE. And Mooncake is just ridiculously adorable.

As eclectic as they are, all the main characters have one thing in common: they’re all flawed, and they all know it by the end.  Gary is impulsive and irresponsible, Quinn is stubborn and tends to put her trust in the wrong people, and Avocato is a ruthless mercenary trying to atone for a dark past. But throughout the show, they strive to become better people and often succeed, mainly because of their undying loyalty and friendship with each other. Gary himself sums it up best: “All of us are broken. It’s just a matter of how much, and how far we’re willing to go to fix it.”

Even though I found it quite funny, I think calling Final Space a comedy would be a stretch. The jokes are just the sprinkles on top of the show. At its gooey centre,  this is an epic space opera about a ragtag group of heroes facing down impossible odds to save each other and the world. For every moment that made me laugh, there was at least one other that tugged at my heartstrings.

Image result for final space
In space, no one can hear you cry.

Oh, and there’s quite a lot of gory death–sometimes deliberately over-the-top for comedy’s sake, and sometimes played straight. The show also has something of an atmosphere of impending doom. Each episode begins with a flash forward to a future in which Gary is drifting alone in space, slowly running out of oxygen with only HUE for company, so we don’t start off with a whole lot of confidence in a happy ending.

Final Space is only 10 episodes long, and each episode is only about 20 minutes, so it has to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. For the most part, it does this admirably (I imagine years of experience with YouTube shorts helps with that). Hardly a single moment feels wasted, and the writing manages to pack a ton of character development and a rather complex plot into the allotted time. Still, the format does limit its storytelling a bit. I would have liked to see more backstory for some of the characters, and the romance between Gary and Quinn really suffers from the compressed timeline. It’s pretty much your basic “loser falls in love with girl way out of his league, gradually wears her down with persistence and a winning personality” story from every comedy ever. The show at least tries to make their relationship feel natural (it helps that Gary really is a good guy at heart), but there’s just not enough time for it to work. Fortunately, there have been hints on the Twittersphere that Season 2 will be longer.

 

Image result for final space gary and quinn
Statistically speaking, relationships formed during the apocalypse tend to be short-lived.

Other than that, and a few jokes that didn’t land for me, the only thing I don’t like about Final Space is that its soundtrack hasn’t been released yet. I need that in my life.

Disclaimer: This is the first cartoon for adults I’ve ever gotten into, so I don’t really know how it compares to stuff like Rick and Morty or Futurama. If you’re a fan of the genre, you might come in with very different expectations than I did. But coming in as a fan of Olan’s YouTube channel, and with no other background info whatsoever, I kinda loved it.

Image result for final space
To the max-core.

It should be noted that, based on his videos and the way he interacts with fans online, I think Olan Rogers might be one of the most decent human beings working in entertainment right now, so I was somewhat predisposed to like this show just because of that. It’s hard not to want a guy like Olan to succeed, especially when he seems so genuinely grateful for the success he’s had already.

But while its humour might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and its story occasionally falters,  I do think this is a good show on its own. It’s got flavours of Firefly and Guardians of the Galaxy, and just a hint of Doctor Who, but Final Space  is very much its own thing, and it’s one of the more imaginative sci-fi stories I’ve encountered in a while. It surprised me, made me laugh, and took me on a wild emotional rollercoaster. I can’t wait for Season 2.

Grade: A-

 

 

Stranger Things 2

Hold onto your Eggos, my friends! Stranger Things is back!

Image result for stranger things 2

Stranger Things 2
Creators: Matt and Ross Duffer
Starring: Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Noah Schnapp, etc.
Music By: Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein
Rated TV-14

(Warning: The following assumes you have seen Season 1 of Stranger Things. Spoilers may abound.)

Season 2 of the ridiculously popular Netflix show starts in October of 1984, about a year after the events of the first season. The Byers household is back together again, with Joyce dating a supremely normal guy named Bob, and Will getting some much-needed therapy. The group of kids we followed in the first season have moved on from their traumatic experiences enough to focus on the really important stuff: celebrating Halloween and impressing the new girl at school. But all of them have a few lingering emotional issues, especially Mike and Nancy, who are still mourning their lost friends. As promised by the trailers, Eleven is alive and well after her apparent heroic sacrifice in the season finale, but she’s still in hiding. And it seems that, even after surviving a weeks-long ordeal of hiding from monsters in a terrifying hell dimension, Will Byers still can’t catch a break. He’s having frequent visions of the Upside Down–visions that seem a little too real. Visions that include glimpses of a huge, shadowy presence who seems very interested in the people of Hawkins, Indiana. Visions that are increasingly reflected in the mysterious blight poisoning the town’s crops.

Image result for stranger things 2 pumpkin patch
Dead pumpkins on Halloween are never a good sign.

One of the many retro sci-fi classics that have influenced Stranger Things from the beginning is Alien. It’s where the creators got the idea to have people cocooned and impregnated by a monster in the first season, but the series also seems to have borrowed some of its atmosphere of suspense and dread, along with the idea of giving the audience just a few scant glimpses of the monster until the grand finale. Well, if Season 1 was Alien, Season 2 is Aliens. It’s much bigger in scope, with more monsters, more action, and more Paul Reiser (he plays the scientist who replaces Dr. Brenner at Hawkins Lab). People tend to be split over whether they prefer the creepy, suspenseful horror movie that was Alien, or the full-blown action thriller that was its sequel. I suspect there’ll be a similar rift in opinions regarding this series. The second season is a bit more fast-paced and epic in scope, uses more big-budget effects, and tries some new ideas–like a particularly controversial episode that takes place entirely outside Hawkins. Some people may take issue with the changes in tone and be disappointed with the new season.

But I’m more of an Aliens fan myself, and to me, this second season does everything a good sequel should do. It expands the world of the original, raises the stakes, and moves the characters forward, with better effects thrown in as a bonus.

Image result for stranger things 2 mind flayer
Something tells me you’d need more than gasoline and a bat to defeat this thing.

Of course, this season is not perfect, any more than the first one was. The aforementioned controversial outside-Hawkins episode, while necessary to the overall story arc in my opinion, was placed in a rather odd spot considering what happens in the episodes immediately before and after it. And it contains a few annoying characters who I hope we’ll never hear from again. The season also spends more time than I would prefer on the ongoing love triangle between Nancy, Steve, and Jonathan. Outside that annoying subplot, Nancy and Jonathan are given less to do this season than before, which hurts both of their already less-than-strong characters. As for Steve…well, I’ll get to him later. Out of the characters introduced this season, the weakest is probably Max, the girl who moves to Hawkins with her step-brother in the first episode. She gets a few good moments in near the end, and her newcomer status creates some interesting situations with the boys, but for most of the season she seems to be there mainly so the group can have a new token girl.

My other complaints are pretty nit-picky, but they bugged me enough to mention. The larger budget for this season clearly allowed the creators to include more classic ’80s songs…but I think they went a little overboard including them in the soundtrack. I love classic rock as much as the next person, but if you use snippets of five different great songs within the first half hour of the first episode, the impact is greatly lessened. Also, a few other companies must have noticed the sales boost Eggo got from the first season, because the product placement is everywhere this time around. KFC and Three Musketeers candy bars practically get their own mini-commercials. It’s as annoying as it is inevitable.

Image result for stranger things 2 kfc steve
“It’s finger lickin’ good.”

Fortunately, all these flaws are overshadowed by the awesomeness of everything else in Season 2. I’m not quite sure where to begin, honestly, because everything about this story is so cool. First of all, the monster is ten times scarier this time around–not because it’s bigger, or scarier-looking, but because of what it can do. An extra-dimensional threat that can pop through your wall at any time is one thing; but an extra-dimensional threat that can send its evil essence to infect your world and your very soul, so gradually that you barely notice until it’s too late, is quite another. The army of mini-monsters it brings with it is just icing. There were hints of a larger supernatural world in the first season, but Season 2 is a straight-up cosmic horror story. My favourite kind!

But the monsters aren’t what make Stranger Things great. Neither is ’80s nostalgia, which is still present in spades this season. The heart of the story has always been about human interactions between the characters in the face of whatever threat they’re dealing with. And boy, does Season 2 give us some great character moments. We get to see a lot of new relationships between characters who didn’t really interact in the first season–like Dustin and Steve, who make a surprisingly awesome duo, and Chief Hopper and Eleven, who form a very touching (though complicated) father-daughter dynamic over the course of the season. And some characters who were a bit out of focus last year get much more development here. The best example is Will, who, despite driving most of the plot in the first season, barely got any screen time. That is more than remedied this season, as he once again drives the plot by becoming an unwilling conduit of the evil entering Hawkins. This means his actor, Noah Schnapp, finally gets to show off his acting chops–and it turns out he’s arguably the most talented in a cast full of amazing child performers. He delivers some of the most terrifying and heart-breaking moments in the season, and he pulls it off with a nuance plenty of adult actors would envy.

Image result for stranger things 2 will possessed
“He likes it cold.”

Then there are the characters we already knew were awesome, but who become more so in Season 2. Steve Harrington, the annoying jock everyone hated at the beginning of the series, has fully graduated to “lovable action hero” status. He’s still flawed, to be sure, but it’s quite clear that he’s working hard to leave his old, irresponsible ways behind. With the help of his trusty nail bat, of course. His is one of the better character arcs I’ve seen in a TV show. Dustin and Lucas are also a bit more in focus this season. We even get to see enough of their home lives to learn that Dustin’s adorableness came from his mom and Lucas’s little sister is a force to be reckoned with. Lucas, whose paranoia sometimes got on my nerves in the first season, becomes much more likable here, and Dustin, the voice of reason last year, makes a few more mistakes this time around. And yet, he remains adorable.

Then there are the new characters we’re introduced to this season. Out of these, the best by far is Bob Newby, Joyce’s new boyfriend. He’s automatically awesome because he’s played by Sam Gamgee, but he becomes even more so after we learn that he’s a lovable dork who makes dad jokes, tries hard to cheer up Will, and shows unexpected bravery and brains in the face of danger, despite not liking scary movies. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Billy, Max’s step-brother, who fills in the “horrible jock we love to hate” slot that was vacated by Steve’s decision to become a decent person. With his hideous mullet, casual racism, and tendency to beat up children for fun, it doesn’t look like he’ll be leaving that spot anytime soon. But with the Hawkins Lab scientists showing a bit less malevolence than they did before, he does an excellent job filling the role of the season’s human villain. Then there’s Kali, the person most responsible for expanding the show’s horizons this season. She may not be the strongest character  Stranger Things has ever produced, but she does play a vital role in Eleven’s development, and I have to admit, I kind of like her style.

Image result for stranger things 2 punk eleven
Can’t compete with Punk!Eleven, though. 

All these character arcs and relationships build into a finale that is both epic and very emotionally satisfying. I got pretty choked up a few times in the last episode, both in a happy way and a sad way. My only concern is that I’m not sure how a third season can top this one, especially with most of the loose ends from Season 1 tied up already. But the finale makes it clear the Upside Down still has a few tricks left up its sleeve. Let’s hope the writers do, too.

Until then, at least the two seasons we’ve got are “totally tubular.”

Grade: A

Blade Runner 2049

At the beginning of the year, I said I wasn’t going to review any sequels (except superhero-related ones). Well, I already broke that rule with War for the Planet of the Apes, and I’m about to break it again, because I can’t not talk about this movie.

Image result for blade runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas
Music by: Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer
Rated R

If you’ve seen the original Blade Runner, you know the setup. (If you haven’t seen the original Blade Runner, I’d highly recommend watching it before the sequel.) Thirty more years into the alternate future imagined there, Los Angeles is just as polluted, overcrowded, and full of the incredibly lifelike androids known as replicants. Ryan Gosling plays a blade runner named K, whose job description is the same as Deckard’s in the first movie: hunt down and kill–erm, excuse me, “retire”–rogue replicants. His job is a little easier, though, because only a few long-lived older replicants are still willing to rebel against their human masters. The newer models, the movie’s opening text tells us, are programmed to be more obedient. But during a run-of-the-mill investigation, K uncovers a secret that leads to a much bigger mystery, and ultimately causes him to question his own identity.

I am a fan of the original Blade Runner–up to a point. When I first watched the Final Cut (there are, like, five different versions of the movie, but that’s the only one I’ve seen), I fell in love with its bleak yet beautiful vision of the future, its neo-noir atmosphere, and its haunting soundtrack. It’s the movie that got me hooked on cyberpunk. But I felt the story left a lot to be desired. I didn’t care about any of the characters (not even Harrison Ford’s–and I love Harrison Ford), and the plot was a pretty basic detective story that, while entertaining, didn’t really seem to warrant all the philosophising and faux symbolism piled on top of it.

So I’m pleased to say that 2049 is better.First of all, as gorgeous as the first movie was, the sequel blows it away in terms of cinematography. With its rich colours, its desolate city landscapes and its shiny futuristic tech, it’s easily one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Every shot feels like a work of art all by itself. And while the soundtrack isn’t quite as imaginative as the original, it still has plenty of lovely, synth-heavy melodies to add to the atmosphere.

Image result for blade runner 2049 tree
Radioactive wastelands have never looked better.

But more importantly, this movie has what the original lacked: a heart. Unlike his predecessor, K is a very sympathetic character despite his morally questionable job.  He’s a calm, stoic guy who seems to accept his role as a small cog in the big machine that preserves what passes for “order” in his society, but as the movie goes on, we find out that a part of him longs for a greater purpose in his life. In a world where human beings can be manufactured as easily as toilet seats (and get about the same amount of respect), K wants to be special, to feel that his life has meaning. It’s a desire most of us can relate to. And K’s not alone in this movie’s universe. His girlfriend, Joi, is also looking for more substance in her life, although her motives are a bit of a puzzle. Even the villains want to make their world a less artificial place–for their own twisted purposes, of course.  Even Deckard, when he shows up this time around, lets his gruff attitude slip often enough to reveal that he, too, longs for a genuine relationship with someone else. As one character says, “We’re all looking out for something real.” Between the excellent acting and the greatly improved story, I ended up caring deeply about most of the people in this movie–human, replicant and other. The original Blade Runner made me think, which is good; but this one made me feel.

Image result for blade runner 2049
“You’ve never seen a miracle.”

You don’t have to be a film expert to tell this movie is a masterpiece of visual storytelling. But, like its predecessor, it’s a flawed masterpiece. A lot of people will probably balk at its length, which is close to three hours. I grew up on The Lord of the Rings extended editions and marathons of BBC miniseries, though, so the length really didn’t bother me. It’s somewhat slow-paced for a big blockbuster, but that’s because it needs to be in order to fully develop its characters and themes. And it has plenty of fist fights and explosions for those patient enough to wait for them. That being said, there are a couple of scenes I could have done without–mainly those involving Jared Leto as one of the main villains. Something about the way he talks just makes it hard for me to take the guy seriously. He came off a bit too much like a pop star trying to be “edgy,” rather than the evil genius he was supposed to be.

Speaking of scenes I could have done without…I did not go into this movie with high expectations regarding its representation of women. After all, in the original Blade Runner, the only female characters were literal sex objects, and the “romance” that drove much of the plot was questionably consensual at best. 2049 is a bit better in that area–in fact, it arguably has more plot-relevant female characters than male ones. But it also has  a giant hologram of a naked woman strutting through L.A. as an advertisement for a virtual girlfriend who is “Everything You Want to See” and “Everything You Want to Hear.” So…there’s that.

Image result for blade runner 2049
And I thought Victoria’s Secret ads were bad.

To be fair, I’m pretty sure imagery like that (which occurs frequently throughout the film) is meant to highlight the shallowness and debauchery of this dystopian society, with its tendency to treat living, thinking beings like disposable objects. But here’s the thing about working in a visual medium: you can’t criticise the objectification of women and parade CGI-manipulated images of naked women through your movie at the same time. That’s contributing to the problem, not solving it. And while it may not be surprising in a Blade Runner sequel, it is pretty disappointing coming from the director behind a wonderful female-driven sci-fi film like Arrival.

But just because I disagree with some of the execution, that doesn’t mean 2049 has nothing to say worth listening to. Quite the contrary.

Many essays could be written–and will be, no doubt–about the many implications of this movie’s premise on issues like racism, classism, the ethics of A.I. and the mysteries of reproduction, just to name a few prominent themes. There’s no doubt that, despite the flying cars and highly advanced robots, the Blade Runner universe is bleak and miserable in ways that sometimes feel uncomfortably familiar.  The climate’s a wreck, whole cities have been turned into literal trash heaps or nuclear wastes, and a large section of the population is treated as sub-human slave labour…but at least those omnipresent hologram ads are still there to distract us with Coke, Sony products, and virtual girlfriends. ‘Murica?

But for me, the heart of this story is in K’s search for identity and purpose. He lives in a world so artificial it’s difficult to tell whether anything is real–even the characters’ own memories–and one of his main goals throughout the movie is to find out how much of his own life is genuine. And while he does get answers by the end of the film, it’s still up to him to decide how those answers will affect his identity. 2049, like its predecessor, spends a lot of time exploring what it means to be human, and it takes a much more definitive stance on the subject by the end. Without giving too much away, I think I can reveal one message I took away from this movie: you don’t have to be “special” in order to make a difference in the world. You just have to do the right thing.

Image result for blade runner 2049
And sometimes you get your nose broken along the way.

There’s a lot more I could say, but to avoid spoilers and to give my typing fingers a rest, I’ll stop there. This is a movie that sticks in the brain, one that demands multiple viewings to fully unpack all its themes and character arcs. It may be bombing at the box office right now, just like its predecessor (you couldn’t ask for a more faithful sequel, honestly), but I have a feeling people will be talking about Blade Runner 2049 for many years to come.

And did I mention how pretty it is? ‘Cause it’s really pretty.

Image result for blade runner 2049 cinematography
SO PRETTY.

Grade: A-

.

.

 

War for the Planet of the Apes

So here’s a franchise I never thought I’d be into…yet here we are.

Image result for war for the planet of the apes

War for the Planet of the Apes
Director: Matt Reeves
Writers: Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback
Stars: Andy Serkis and some other people
Soundtrack Composer: Michael Giacchino
Rated PG-13

When the movie begins, the war that started in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is still raging. Caesar, our charismatic ape leader, and his people are being hunted by an army of humans led by a slightly insane man called The Colonel. After a particularly fierce battle, The Colonel finds Caesar’s hiding place, and, well…let’s just say things get personal. While most of the apes head out to find a home far from the redwood forest and its human inhabitants, Caesar teams up with three of his oldest companions and sets out on a quest for vengeance. Along the way, they pick up an adorable human girl who happens to be mute, and another ape who has learned to speak, despite not belonging to our original band of escaped lab rats. But as the group gets closer to his goal, Caesar finds himself as much at war with his inner demons as with the humans.

Man, how did I get sucked into this trilogy? When Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out, I hadn’t seen any of the previous Apes movies. (Still haven’t.) I thought the name sounded stupid. (Too many “ofs.”) And generally speaking, anytime a monkey or an ape shows up in a story, I start taking things a little less seriously. But I watched the movie at a friend’s house after it came out on DVD, and it wasn’t half bad. Then I had to review the second movie for a college project, and that one wasn’t half bad either. So when the third one came out, I thought, “Why not?” and went to see it on opening night.

Image result for war for the planet of the apes
Guess I’m a sucker for apes on horses or something.

There are a couple things in this movie that particularly stood out to me throughout the whole viewing experience. One is the music. Now I know why Michael Giacchino’s Spider-Man score was so underwhelming: he was saving all his talent and skill for this movie! This film relies on music every bit as much as dialogue and cinematography to tell its story, so it’s a good thing the soundtrack is so thick with atmosphere, suspense, and emotion. There are many scenes that would have been just okay on their own, but with the soundtrack, they become masterpieces. Whether it’s  a minimalistic drumbeat or a majestic choral piece, the music is always perfectly suited to what’s going on in the story. At times it reminded me of the feeling I get when listening to an early John Williams score. That’s how good it was.

Secondly, I’ve always been impressed by these movies’ ability to create believable human emotions in characters that are both fully digital and, well, very much not human. This movie does it again...but even more so. There were many times when I completely forgot I was watching CGI apes. Their performances just seem so real, thanks to a combination of great acting and freaking miraculous animation. And in this movie, those performances get to take centre stage. My biggest problem with Dawn was that it spent a lot of time on bland, uninteresting human characters, when I only cared about the apes. This movie fixes that problem by focusing almost exclusively on its simian characters. There are really only two humans with any significance to the plot: the young girl and The Colonel. And they’re both quite interesting, actually, so I didn’t even mind the few scenes that focus on them.

Image result for war for the planet of the apes nova
She’s too cute! I can’t stand it!

The apes are still the most interesting, though. Maurice the orangutan is awesome as always, and the new member of the crew, Bad Ape, provides some much-needed comic relief in what is often a very dark film.

But can I just talk for a second about how amazing Andy Serkis is? Yes, the animators deserve a lot of credit for putting his facial expressions and body language onto Caesar, but he’s the one who had to make those facial expressions in the first place. He inhabits the role with so much power and pent-up emotion, and then every once in a while, he EXPLODES and it’s beautiful to see. Over the course of three movies, he really has created an iconic character in Caesar, right up there with his work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. As good as certain other elements are, his acting is the heart and soul of this whole trilogy. The man is great at what he does, and if there were any justice in the world, he’d have at least two or three Oscar nominations under his belt by now.

Image result for war for the planet of the apes caesar
I know, dude. It’s messed up.

So the movie has a lot going for it, production-wise, and that’s a mighty good thing, because this is a story about talking apes that asks its audience to take it 100 percent seriously. It is a bleak, tragic film about a post-apocalyptic war that occasionally delves into heavy philosophical territory. And it’s about apes. Who, I kid you not, fling poo at one point. If anything–the acting, the special effects, the writing–had gone the slightest bit wrong, this movie would have become a farce.

But fortunately, almost nothing seems to have gone wrong on the production side, so I can actually identify with things like Caesar’s desire for revenge, and his fear that he’s becoming more like his old enemy, Koba. Like in the previous movies, the toxic cycle of fear and hatred comes up a lot. In addition to the usual prejudice between humans and apes, we also see both apes and humans betraying each other out of fear, and Caesar finds his own hatred driving him to do more morally questionable things. And as it becomes clear that the apes are getting even smarter and humans are starting to regress, some questions come up about what really makes them different from one another. Speech? Culture? Violence? Or does it not even matter? Does the amount of mercy and compassion you’re capable of showing matter more than the amount of body hair you’ve got?

Image result for war for the planet of the apes the colonel
“SO EMOTIONAL!”

There’s a lot of religious symbolism in this movie, which surprised me for some reason. It’s pretty common for post-apocalyptic stories to feature vaguely Christian-sounding cults with insane leaders, and sure enough, the villain in this movie has delusions of God-hood. Since the other two movies didn’t show any tendencies in that direction, I guess I wasn’t expecting it here, but I didn’t necessarily mind it. It’s not usually too heavy-handed, and it does set up a nice contrast between the villain, with his twisted ideas of what sacrifice for the greater good looks like, and Caesar, who knows more about what it really means. There were also a few times when I was vaguely reminded of certain current events (the building of a wall becomes a plot point in the second half) but fortunately, it never felt like the movie was trying to push a political message. It’s much too subtle for that. Very few things are spelled out for the audience.

Overall, what we have here is a well-made, often moving, always gorgeous film that is well worth watching and discussing. It’s the best movie in the trilogy, and it’s the best movie about apes I’ve ever seen. And Andy Serkis is just the best.

Grade: A for “APES! TOGETHER! STRONG!”

Titan A.E.

I promise I’ll get back to reviewing new movies soon. It’s just that not too many interesting ones are being released right now, at least not at my town’s tiny theatre, so this seems like a good time to catch up on older films I haven’t seen before.

Image result for titan ae

This little cartoon, released in 2000, starts off with a bang: in the year 3028 A.D., the Earth gets blown up by some evil energy beings called the Drej. A scientist has to leave his young son on an escaping space ship so he can pilot a mysterious super ship, known as the Titan, to an unknown location. Fast forward 15 years, and the son (who is unfortunately named Cale–I think the vegetable kale craze was still a few years away when this was made) is eking out a living at a salvage station in deep space. But one day a stranger named Korso shows up to tell him that his father left behind a map to the Titan’s hiding place that only Cale can open, and that the ship could save what’s left of the human race. So they set off, along with a pretty pilot named Akima and a few alien crew members, to find the ship before the Drej can destroy it.

I’ve wanted to watch this movie for a long time–and I mean a really long time. I was eight when it came out, and I remember seeing commercials for it on TV. Back then I barely knew what sci-fi was, and the concept of the Earth getting destroyed was a brand new, terrifying idea for me. So I was pretty intrigued by the movie, but then it came out…and I never heard anything about it again. Apparently it made so little money that it almost single-handedly destroyed the studio that made it (Fox Animation). But I recently found a copy of the DVD, and I just couldn’t pass up the chance to see it.

One thing’s for sure: this movie did not deserve to fail as badly as it did. It’s got a decent story, a creative universe, and some freaking incredible visuals. A mix of hand-drawn and computer-generated animation brings to life a ton of amazing alien worlds and outer-space imagery. When a movie begins with the most impressive blowing-up-a-planet shot I’ve ever seen, I know it’s going to be a fun ride. And this one didn’t disappoint. Just a couple of the scenes where the animation made my jaw drop: the part where Cale pilots a ship through the atmosphere of a gas planet while accompanied by what look like cosmic stingrays; and the scene where the heroes are flying through an ice field and have to figure out where the villains’ ship is among all the reflections. It puts most Disney cartoons I’ve seen to shame.

Where’s an IMAX screen when you need one?

That being said, I can understand why it wasn’t a hit. See if any of this sounds familiar: A young man with a weird haircut and daddy issues, who happens to be one of very few humans in his spacefaring culture, discovers a map that only he can open, which ends up leading him to a planet-shaped machine of incalculable value, while his mentor betrays him but ultimately turns good again, and the whole thing is soundtracked by turn-of-the-millennium punk rock. If that rings a bell, it’s probably because you’ve seen Treasure Planet, Disney’s steampunk adaptation of Treasure Island, which came out around the same time. I’m not sure who was copying whom (this one came out first, but they were in production at the same time), but the similarities are eerie. And both movies, sadly, bombed in theatres, even though Treasure Planet is one of the best Disney movies ever.

Also, I couldn’t quite figure out who Titan A.E.‘s target audience was. Some of the characters and humour seem designed to appeal to younger kids, but the overall tone of the story feels more adult. And it definitely has more blood and nakedness than you’d expect in your average kids’ movie–though perhaps not more than you’d expect in a Don Bluth movie. Every cartoon of his that I saw as a kid gave me nightmares, so maybe it’s for the best that it took me so long to see this one.

The lack of a discernible target audience doesn’t necessarily make for a bad movie, but the story does have some genuine flaws. The biggest, for me, is a lack of development for the villains. We know the Drej are trying to destroy humanity because they think they’ll become a threat to them if they’re allowed to survive, but we never really find out why they think that, whether it’s true, or what form that threat could take. The manner in which the aliens are finally defeated suggests a few possibilities, but I would have liked their motivations explained a little better.

Yeah…that doesn’t count as a motive, no matter what Marvel tells you.

But there’s one thing I really like about this movie, which sets it apart from others of its type. In most of the movies I’ve seen where a planet gets destroyed (isn’t it weird how many there are to choose from?), the loss of an entire habitat is usually glossed over in favour of a larger story. A New Hope, Star Trek, any number of Doctor Who episodes…heck, The Force Awakens blows up five planets at once and hardly blinks! This is the first movie I’ve seen that really delves into the consequences of such a mass destruction–the feeling of homelessness and aimlessness that a species without a planet might experience, and their need to find a place to belong. It put me in mind of real-life refugees, and how they must feel when they’re forced to leave home and settle in unfamiliar and often unfriendly places. Overall, it’s not bad material for a sci-fi film to explore.

The guy on the right is voiced by baby Matt Damon, so we can add this to the list of movies where he’s been lost in space. What oddly specific type-casting.

It’s hard not to compare this movie to Treasure Planet, even though they really are very different films under the surface. Titan A.E.‘s visuals blow Treasure Planet‘s out of the water–which is saying something, because that movie is gorgeous, too. But I think Treasure Planet had a better story. It was based on a classic novel, after all.

But despite its flaws, I found Titan A.E. a very fun, enjoyable sci-fi flick. It’s worth watching just for the visuals, and the story isn’t bad either. And, of course, I’ll always be in its debt for inspiring my life-long love of explosions in space.

KABOOOM!!!!

Grade: B+