Augh! I’ve been tricked into watching a romantic comedy!!

When I decided I was going to start watching foreign films, I naturally asked my more knowledgeable friends (some of whom actually live in other countries) for suggestions. One of the most common suggestions was Amelie, a French film that I had always heard of but never watched, partly because the cover makes it look like it’s about a particularly disturbed serial killer.

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Come on, take a look at those crazy eyes and tell me I’m wrong.

But as it turns out, Amelie is not a slasher film. (By the way, excuse my lack of proper accents–I have a bad keyboard.) It belongs to the one genre I despise more than slashers: romantic comedy. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, it being French and all. It tells the story of an imaginative girl named…you guessed it…who grows up in Paris with her socially awkward dad and her overly nervous mum, until a suicidal tourist falls on the mum’s head, killing her in the most hilariously cruel way possible. Fast forward a few years, and Amelie has turned into a lovely young woman who’s still imaginative, but also painfully introverted. Her only relationships are with her dad, who’s become a total recluse, and her quirky co-workers at the cafe where she waitresses. But one day she finds an old box of toys hidden in her apartment and decides to reunite it with its former owner. Thus begins her new career of trying to make life better for everyone around her–while talking to them as little as possible. When she meets a young man whose quirks seem compatible with hers, she tries to win him over in a similar fashion: through the magic of stalking.

To be perfectly honest, as romantic comedies go, this is definitely one of the cleverest and most artfully made ones I’ve seen. It avoids many of the usual cliches, and it really is funny at times. While Amelie’s brand of shyness may be a bit extreme–to the point where it seems she must have a mental disorder of some kind–every introvert can probably relate just a little bit to her fear of speaking to strangers, especially ones she fancies. Also, she’s homeschooled! I think this might be the first movie I’ve seen where the protagonist went to the same school I did. Yay home school!

Of course, my experience didn’t include blackboards…or French, sadly enough.

Amelie‘s cinematography is also lovely. Besides some random, cartoony special effects thrown in to emphasize the magical realism side of the movie, the Parisian scenery is constantly shown off in the most gorgeous ways possible. The soundtrack is great too, in a quiet way. And the movie has one of the least annoying narrators I’ve ever seen. I love the way he introduces each character, not with a bunch of backstory, but just a few of their likes and dislikes. His delivery also adds a lot of humour to the story.

The only problem I have with this movie’s “trappings”–effects, cinematography, etc.–is that it all seems a bit…stereotypical. The music makes great use of that accordion-sounding instrument that is synonymous with France in every American movie. People spend a lot of time drinking wine and talking about sex and art in picturesque cafes. Stripes figure prominently in several characters’ wardrobes. Paris is portrayed as a sparkly clean city full of beautiful stone buildings, bronze statues, and white people. Women (and the men around them) seem very comfortable with letting it all hang out, so to speak. It’s all so similar to the depiction of France I’ve seen in every TV show, movie, cartoon and poster here in the States that I can’t help feeling a bit suspicious. Then again, this movie was made by actual French people, and I’ve never even been to France, so what do I know? Maybe all the stereotypes are true. Also, this is the most famous French movie in America, and it’s been around for a while, so it’s possible some of the stereotypes I grew up with started with Amelie.

“Postcard Paris! Wheeeee!”

A bigger problem I have with this movie is that, even though it’s more artfully made than most romantic comedies, at bottom it’s about the same old thing: two pretty, quirky people decide to hook up because they’re both pretty and quirky. Even if Amelie’s portrayed as a pathologically shy person who gets braver by the end (sort of), she still falls back on the stalking method to woo her love interest, instead of actually trying to get to know him, and that is a method I can never condone. I mean…their relationship is primarily based on photo booth pictures! Honestly, even after seeing the movie, I still think Amelie would make a pretty good serial killer. She’s got the complicated schemes down, including disguises and ways of covering her tracks, and she does have a bit of a mean streak, as shown by the cruel pranks she plays on the neighbors she sees as “bad.” She’s even got the right kind of backstory–parental issues, a socially awkward personality, and at least one traumatic childhood experience. But in this movie she’s the heroine, because she only hurts people who are shown as total jerks, her stalking victim happens to think she’s hot, and…well, so does the audience. Nice.

In the end, this movie’s message seems to be: “Life is short. Take action to pursue your dreams, even if it’s scary, instead of just letting things happen to you.” Which is not a bad message, all things considered. Of course, it still doesn’t quite make up for the fact that our two romantic leads are never shown speaking to each other.

Statistically speaking, relationships that begin this way have a low probability of turning out well. And I’m still getting serial killer vibes…

I can definitely understand why so many of my friends like this movie. It’s pretty, it’s cute, and it’s funny. The acting is good, the cinematography is great, and the writing is witty. It’s got a happy, feel-good plot. But it simply isn’t my cup of tea. I’m not a huge fan of romance in general, as I’ve explained before, and I tend to like movies with a little more conflict. I’m also not a huge fan of nudity, and although I wasn’t surprised to see a few casually topless women in a French film, I still could have done without them.

Things I had to look up: 

Really just the names of cocktails. Because Amelie works in a cafe that serves alcohol, people mention various drink orders a lot, which occasionally confused me. I didn’t know what a kir was, or a mauresque, for example. But I think that says more about my ignorance of wine and fancy wine drinks than my ignorance of France. I also had to look up the word “scurf.” But again, that’s an English word that I probably should have known already. Overall, this movie is very easy to follow for an American audience, which probably explains its success over here.

This is one movie that I don’t personally love, but I wouldn’t think any less of another person for loving it. It succeeds in everything it tries to do–I just don’t really love any of those things. Still, I found it mildly entertaining, and it even made me laugh out loud a couple times, which is more than I can say for most romantic movies.

You got that right, narrator.

By the way, apparently there’s a stage musical version of Amelie out now, starring Phillippa Soo. Now THAT I might pay money to see.

Grade: B


The LEGO Batman Movie

It’s been three years since The LEGO Movie surprised me by turning what should have just been a two-hour toy commercial into one of the funniest, most creative, and most heartwarming animated movies in recent memory. And it’s been four years since the DC Extended Universe, which should by rights be the best superhero movie franchise ever, began the slow, agonising process of breaking my heart. Now, in this year’s  crossover, can the magic of LEGO save the Dark Knight from dullness?

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This movie centres on Batman as he appeared in The LEGO Movie, in all his self-absorbed, dim-witted glory. He has no trouble saving Gotham from the Joker’s latest evil schemes (not even when latter teams up with such fearsome villains as Calendar Man and Condiment King), but he is having a lot of trouble forming relationships. Even admitting the Joker is his arch-nemesis proves to be too great a commitment for Batman–which the clown doesn’t take very well. When the new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon, unexpectedly helps to capture all of Gotham’s supervillains at once, Batman is left with no one to fight–except Alfred, who wants him to become more mature and responsible, and Dick Grayson, the orphan he accidentally adopted, who just wants a dad. To get out of his funk (and, of course, foil a new scheme by the Joker) Batman must confront his greatest fear: being part of a family again.

If you saw The LEGO Movie, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from this semi-sequel: gorgeously detailed animation, a diabolically catchy soundtrack, tons of pop culture references, and Batman being a giant ham. It’s every bit as funny and frenetic as its predecessor, even if the concept feels less fresh and original than it did the first time around. The plot twists and surprises of the first movie are hard to beat, and for the most part, this one doesn’t even try.

But that’s okay, because this doesn’t feel as much like a LEGO movie as it feels like a Batman movie where everything happens to be made of LEGO. And when you look at it that way, it becomes what DC fans have been vainly hoping for ever since Man of Steel came out: a DC-based film that makes sense, respects its source material, and is willing to have fun. It’s packed with shout-outs to every incarnation of Batman that has ever graced the screen, from the ’60s TV show to Suicide Squad–which it soundly mocks. It even gives a nod to HISHE’s “Because I’m Batman!” meme, for those of us who frequent YouTube. And the story itself wouldn’t feel too out-of-place in a Batman comic (well, with the exception of a few non-DC properties that turn up towards the end). It truly feels like a movie made by and for Batman fans.

“How many characters from the comics should we put in this movie?” “ALL OF THEM!”

This is undoubtedly the most light-hearted incarnation of the Dark Knight to hit the screen in my lifetime, but he’s still got some issues. Just like in all his appearances, he’s hung up on his parents’ death, which in this case makes it hard for him to form relationships, for fear of being hurt again. It’s a pretty relatable problem, and in between all the jokes, it’s developed in a pretty touching way. When it comes time to give Batsy some much-needed character development, this story does so with great sincerity and heart.

And as always, Batman would be nothing without his supporting cast, who are all in fine form here. Alfred has never been more kind and fatherly, or more awesome. Robin has never been more adorable. And Batgirl–well, Batgirl hasn’t made a lot of appearances on the big screen, has she? So I guess I’m just happy she’s here. I’m also happy that she’s voiced by Rosario Dawson, a.k.a. Claire Temple, who has lots of experience talking sense into overly angsty male superheroes. Even the Joker is kinda likable in this movie, even though he’s still pretty evil.

He just needs a hug. And an archnemesis.

I have some nitpicks, of course. For example, I’m sick of seeing Batgirl played as a love interest for Batman. It’s creepy, it’s weird, and it still feels a little wrong even when it’s played for laughs in a kid’s movie. Also, I don’t know how I feel about Sauron being part of Joker’s evil army at the end (minor spoilers, sorry). I know it’s fun to put a bunch of Big Bads from various franchises together in a LEGO movie, but if you’re going to parody the incarnation of evil from the best fantasy tale of all time, you should at least  pronounce his name right. Also also, did Batman need to be waving an iPhone around? Do Warner Bros. and LEGO really need the advertising money?

Look at this. I’m critiquing a LEGO movie. What is wrong with me?

I’m as useless as Bat-Shark Repellent.

Despite some minor flaws, this is, without question, the best Batman movie since the Dark Knight saga. I won’t go as far as some critics have and say it’s the best Batman movie ever made, but it’s definitely in the top five. And like The LEGO Movie, it comes with a message any parent should be glad to teach their kid: You can’t do everything on your own. It’s worth it to make friends and be part of a family, even if you risk getting hurt in the process. That lesson isn’t exactly revolutionary coming from a kid’s movie, but I can think of a few grown-up superheroes who could stand to hear it again. Not to mention a few real-life humans.

Bottom line: LEGO has, indeed, saved Batman. (At least until Justice League comes out and ruins him again.) And everything is still awesome in the LEGO-verse.

The seating arrangements could use some work, though.

Grade: A

Monthly Movie Rant: My favourite valentines

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I’m single, so you might expect me to hate Valentine’s Day. But that’s not the case. I’m glad we have a holiday celebrating love, even if it does get exploited a lot by heartless candy companies. And to any couples using this day as an excuse to get all romantical, I say, “More power to you.” Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying my own Valentine’s Day tradition by baking heart-shaped cookies and watching the most violent movie in my collection. (This year it’s Mad Max: Fury Road. ‘Cause nothing says love like a flamethrower guitar.)

While I have nothing against Valentine’s Day as a holiday, I’m not a big fan of the kinds of movies that come out around this time of year. You will never see me review a romantic comedy or drama on this blog, because, with the exception of a few adaptations of work by geniuses like Jane Austen, I think they’re all rubbish. Love is a very difficult thing to portray on screen, and most movies that are built around a romance come across as trite and formulaic at best.

But once in a while, I do find an on-screen couple that I really like, and when I do, I’m as passionate a shipper as anyone. All my ships have a few things in common. Their relationship is never the main focus of the work, but it always adds another dimension to it. I always like both characters equally when they’re apart from each other. And I always feel like one character completes the other in some way, whether it’s through different personalities, different worldviews, or something else. I also tend to like couples in TV shows better than movies, because a show gives you more time to develop each character and their relationship.

Anyway, here are my top 5 favourite movie and TV couples:

5. Claire Temple and Matt Murdock (Marvel’s Daredevil)

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What’s that? You say these two aren’t a couple anymore? Well, you can take that negative thinking and throw it down the Hand’s bottomless pit, because Clairedevil is the best ship on any Marvel/Netflix show so far. These two heroes share a desire for justice and a willingness to sacrifice everything to see it done, but beyond that, their personalities couldn’t be more different. One’s a ruthless vigilante with a martyr complex and a flair for the dramatic, and one’s a sarcastic, down-to-earth nurse who still longs for a normal life, even though that’s impossible since she lives in Marvel’s New York City. Claire gives Matt a good dose of common sense when he needs it (which is often), and he inspires her to put her skills and smarts to work for a greater cause. They make a fantastic team, and I’m still holding out hope they might get together more permanently someday.

4. Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt (Parks and Recreation)

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This is kind of a weird one for me, because it comes from a show with no sci-fi or supernatural elements (which are usually my prerequisites for liking a show). But gosh darn it, these two are just so cute together. And they’re a political couple where neither half is cheating and both stay married for love rather than political convenience. Which, I guess, brings  a little bit of fantasy to the show. I’m a little biased towards the male half of this couple, though, because Ben Wyatt is literally my dream man. (Smart, nerdy, good-looking, creates his own board games, and owns a Batman costume. What more do you want?)

3. Wash and Zoe (Firefly/Serenity)

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I’ll admit, when I first started watching Firefly, I did a double-take when I realised these two were married. They’re the ultimate odd couple: the goofy, physically unimposing pilot with the stoic, no-nonsense warrior woman. But that’s what makes them so great together. Wash is one of the few people who can get Zoe to lighten up, and Zoe brings out his hidden tough guy. They’re both fantastic at what they do, and their love and respect for one another is always obvious–sometimes almost sickeningly so. Naturally, theirs ends up being a tragic romance, because Joss Whedon doesn’t believe in happy endings. But up until then, they were perfect.

2. Han and Leia (Star Wars)

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They’re among the most famous cinematic couples in history, and for good reason. You can’t get more sassy banter, or more romantic declarations of love, in any other movie. They’re also one of the only fictional couples I like who actually have similar personalities. Leia and Han are both rebels in their own ways, and they both have a habit of mouthing off to authority figures. But of course, Han starts out as a scoundrel, until his encounter with Leia convinces him to fight for bigger things than just himself. Leia was already pretty much perfect, but falling in love with Han helps her become a little less arrogant. It also saves her from falling for her brother, which is always a good thing. And even if they eventually met with tragedy by way of an emo son, I still ❤ these two.

  1. Mulder and Scully (The X-Files)

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This couple is the gold standard to which I hold all movie and TV romances. Their interactions are so funny, their love so heartwarming, it can even make a jaded cynic like me feel something. And even though I love both of them equally, neither is ever quite as fun to watch unless the other is around. Again, Agents Mulder and Scully couldn’t have been more different when they first met: she’s a rather cold, logical-minded scientist who won’t believe in anything unless she sees solid proof, and he’s an emotional guy who believes there’s a UFO behind every tree. But what with Mulder’s hunches usually being right, and Scully’s common sense keeping him from getting into too much danger, they make a great team. More importantly, it’s clear throughout the show that they trust each other more than anyone else and would go to the ends of the earth (literally) to save each other. They may never have explicitly said they were in a relationship on the show, but in my mind, they’re married. Oh, and their fans invented the term “shipping,” so you have to respect that.

All that to say – Happy Valentine’s Day from the Wizard! Who are your favourite fictional couples?

Hidden Figures

Here’s a movie that combines two of my favourite things: smart female characters and SPACE.

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Hidden Figures is based on the real-life stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, three African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s. When the movie begins, they’re all working in the “colored computers” section of NASA, where they actually do the math that electronic computers do for astronauts nowadays. But as the U.S. struggles to keep up with Russia in the space race, they each get assigned to different tasks, where their genius and vital contributions to the project eventually convince their superiors to…treat them like human beings. Once they help put John Glenn in orbit, they end up doing for the rights of female and minority scientists what he did for space exploration.

Overall, this is a pretty by-the-numbers “inspirational” movie–which, to be honest, is not my favourite kind of movie. It’s pretty predictable. It’s got inspiring speeches in all the usual places, it has the usual sexist/racist villains who get their usual comeuppance, and it has the usual tidied-up happy ending with the text appearing on-screen to tell us how our heroines’ lives turned out. I don’t know that much about the real-life events the story was based on, but I’d be willing to bet the heroines’ problems weren’t all completely solved within the time frame of this movie. And that’s the problem I have with most inspirational movies based on real life–real life is a lot more complicated than they make it seem, and simplifying it doesn’t make it more inspiring.

But this movie’s main purpose isn’t to be a surprising, suspenseful story with lots of twists. Its purpose is to bring to light some important women whose achievements never got the recognition they deserved. And it achieves that goal. I had never heard of any of these women before the movie came out, and it made me want to learn more about them. So in that sense, it does what it set out to do.

Let’s play a game called “find the main character.”

Considering the constraints of an “inspirational” movie based on historic events, it’s very well made, too. Octavia Spencer, Taraji Henson, and Janelle Monae all turn in fantastic performances. Henson has the most to do, since her character gets the most developed story arc, and she makes Katherine’s intelligence and determination totally believable. But she’s very down-to-earth and sympathetic, too. Everybody gets a big speech about racism in this movie, because that’s just the kind of movie it is, but Katherine pulls off hers the best. I think it’s because, while some of the other speeches come more or less out of nowhere, hers comes after a good hour of built-up frustration and is about something we can all relate to–the need to use the bathroom. The irony of a top-level NASA scientist being able to calculate the trajectory of the first manned orbit, but not being allowed to use the same restroom as her peers, is not lost on either the character or the audience. And of course, the cinematography, the 60s-era costumes, the music, the shots of the rocket taking off spliced with the original news footage–it’s all very well done.

Also, I find it really hard not to love any movie that has to do with NASA’s first few missions. Just the idea that we sent people to space in a time when a basic computer filled half a room boggles my mind. It’s one of the very few things that can make me feel proud to be an American. And knowing that black women helped make that possible, even back when most colleges wouldn’t let them get degrees, just makes it all the more impressive.

“We shall crush the white patriarchy under our high heels!”

So there’s nothing wrong with this movie, per se, and it probably deserves its Best Picture nomination as much as any other movie on the list. But I wish that, just once, we could have a movie about historical figures overcoming racism and injustice that didn’t beat us over the head with speeches all the time, didn’t wrap up everything so tidily at the end, and wasn’t so darn predictable.

But I highly recommend going to see this movie–in the theatre if you can. Not just because it’s a decent film in its own right that will get you thinking about an oft-ignored bit of history–but also because the more successful movies we get with black female leads, the closer we come to getting a movie about my favourite real-life black woman: Harriet Tubman. If done right, her movie wouldn’t just be inspirational and uplifting–it’d be cool. Harriet Tubman was a spy! She rescued hundreds of slaves! She led troops against the Confederates! She was like Indiana Jones and Batman in the body of a five-foot woman! Why haven’t we made a movie about her yet???

Hidden Figures is a good movie with a good message. But it’s a little too safe. It follows the “inspirational movie formula” a little too closely for me. I wanted a little more complexity and a couple fewer speeches.

Oh, well. At least now I have three more awesome scientists to read about. Any day I find out about brilliant women making a difference in space technology is a good day.

Grade: B+

Seriously, though, Hollywood: make that Harriet Tubman movie. We’ve waited long enough.

Monthly Movie Rant: Groundhog days

I missed my Monthly Movie Rant for January. So, since February has two holidays that have a big influence on movies, the shortest month of the year gets two rants.

First: Groundhog Day was this week, which means all kinds of TV stations with nothing better to do played the movie Groundhog Day–probably on a loop, in some cases. To be honest, Groundhog Day isn’t one of my favourite movies. It’s definitely creative and well-made, but some of the humour is a little too cringe-y for my taste (actually a problem I have with most Bill Murray movies), and it’s a little on the long side. But I will always love and respect it for popularising one of the greatest recurring plot devices in all of cinema: the Groundhog Day loop.

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It’s such a simple idea: one day (or hour, or weekend, whatever) repeats itself over and over until our protagonist changes the right thing. But so many movies and TV shows have found so many different creative, original things to do with it. Groundhog Day loops can be used for humour, horror, heartbreak, or all of the above. Here are a few of the loops I’d be most willing to watch over and over again.

3. Mystery Spot – from Supernatural

“Heeaaattt of the moment!”

Supernatural–the never-ending CW show about monsters and underwear models–is a huge guilty pleasure of mine. The acting is cheesy, the effects are usually lame, the story is stupid, and yet…it’s probably the only show that could pull off an episode like this.

A bit of background: the main characters in Supernatural are the Winchester brothers, who spend their days driving across the Midwest in a 1967 Chevy Impala, listening to classic rock and killing monsters and demons of every description. In season 3, where this episode takes place, Dean (the older and better brother) knows he has a year to live, because he sold his soul to a demon last season to bring Sam (the younger and taller brother) back to life after some dude stabbed him in the back. Sam obviously wants to find a way to get Dean out of his contract, but that plan has run into some difficulties.

Anyway, “Mystery Spot” opens with the two brothers investigating a mysterious disappearance in a town that is famous for a supposed “mystery spot” that breaks the laws of physics. While they’re snooping around the tourist attraction at night, its startled owner accidentally shoots and kills Dean. And then…Sam wakes up the previous morning. They investigate, Dean gets hit by a car, Sam wakes up, they investigate, Dean gets squashed by a piano…you get the idea. As the loop keeps repeating itself, Dean keeps dying in increasingly ridiculous ways, no matter what Sam does to prevent it. And it is hilarious. Sam’s escalating frustration, Dean’s total obliviousness (since he can’t perceive the time loop), and even the random townspeople who keep doing the same things over and over–it’s all a hoot.

Dean Winchester: slayer of demons, terror of Hell, killed by a piano.

Then, halfway through the episode, Sam figures out what’s causing the time loop, and things get angsty again. I won’t reveal the twist, but by the end, the time loop has driven Sam over the edge into psycho territory, and even though the loop eventually breaks for good, we end on a rather ominous note that seems to indicate the utter hopelessness of Sam’s quest to save Dean. Oh, and also an Asia song that will never leave your head.

In this case, the Groundhog Day loop gave Supernatural a chance to do what it does best–make something horrible happen to its main characters, make the audience laugh at it, and then make the audience feel horrible for laughing. Rinse and repeat. But this is one episode where both the dark humour and the drama are particularly effective. The funny parts are truly hilarious, the dark parts are truly disturbing, and neither one diminishes the other. It’s one of the few Supernatural episodes I wouldn’t be ashamed to be caught watching. (Even though I love them all.)

This gif…just…sums up the show.

2. Monday – from The X-Files

What, your average week doesn’t start out this way?

I’m pretty sure The X-Files used every single sci-fi plot device ever invented over the decade or so when it aired, so of course they were going to do a Groundhog Day loop sooner or later. But the way they went about it was very different from most other loops I’ve seen.

The episode begins with Mulder bleeding on the floor of a bank (which, to be fair, is a typical Monday for him) while Scully is trying to talk down the robber who shot him and is now threatening to blow up the entire building. She fails, it blows up, everyone dies. Then Mulder wakes up in his apartment, takes a trip to the bank, gets himself and Scully caught in a hostage situation, the bank blows up, everyone dies. As the loop keeps repeating, Mulder and Scully start to get de ja vu, especially when a strange girl starts showing up every day to warn them not to go into the bank.

What’s so interesting about this Groundhog Day loop is that we don’t see it from the perspective of the person caught in the loop. Mulder and Scully don’t realise that they’re living the same day over and over–at least not at first. The one person who is aware of the loop–the girl outside the bank–isn’t connected to them or the larger story arc in any way, and we never find out how long she’s been in the loop or how it started in the first place. It’s like watching Groundhog Day from the perspective of one of the random citizens of Punxsatawney.

“I’m not the main character of this story, am I?”

Another odd thing is that the day isn’t exactly the same every time. Even when the girl isn’t trying to influence things to go a different way, little things change with every loop. One Monday Mulder trips over his sneakers getting out of bed; the next, he avoids them. One Monday he goes to the bank before Scully; another Monday, she goes first. The only thing that never changes is the bomb going off in the end. Our favourite agents have some interesting discussions throughout the episode about whether our everyday choices affect our destinies, so you might say the whole story is a philosophical exercise in free will vs. predestination.

Or you could just look at it as the rare enjoyable X-Files episode in a season that was beginning to show the series’ age. Either way, I’m a fan.

Scully’s not, though.

1. Edge of Tomorrow 

Or “Live, Die, Repeat,” as it’s apparently known now.

I can’t stand Tom Cruise. Everything about him annoys me: his teeth, his hair, his running posture, his motorcycles, his Scientology, everything. I’m 50 percent less likely to see a movie if I find out he’s in it. So when I say I enjoyed a film that stars Tom Cruise, you know it’s gotta be a great one.

Edge of Tomorrow is one of those movies. Based on a Japanese light novel (not sure how that’s different from a manga, but the internet assures me it is), this movie takes place in the future, when the world is at war with an alien race called the Mimics. A cowardly PR guy for the U.S. military, William Cage, ends up on the front lines of a big invasion into alien territory after ticking off the wrong general. Predictably, he gets killed in his first battle, but less predictably, he then wakes up the morning before he shipped out. Turns out that he’s somehow managed to absorb an ability some of the aliens possess, that allows them to “re-set the day” every time they get killed in battle. With the help of a legendary war hero named Rita Vrataski, he starts figuring out how to use this ability to help the humans win the war.

“Emily, please teach me how to be less annoying.”

No highbrow philosophy here. This movie is just a ton of fun. Yes, the reasoning behind Cage’s ability to re-set time is a bit confusing, but who cares when we get to see a montage of Tom Cruise getting killed in hilarious ways? Seriously, though, Cruise does do a good job playing against type as a pathetic coward, and then gradually becoming more competent and awesome as the movie goes on. And Emily Blunt, who plays Rita, doesn’t know how to turn in a bad performance. The action scenes are great, the character development is heartwarming, the sci-fi concept is cool, and did I mention how funny all of Cage’s death scenes are? I think it’s also the closest we’ll ever get to seeing a good video game movie–even though it’s not based on a game.

It does have respawn points, though.

See how great of a device the Groundhog Day loop is? It can even make a Tom Cruise movie awesome! There are so many story possibilities for this trope that it’s no surprise movie and TV writers keep using it over…and over…and over…and over…

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.

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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.


Grade: B+

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Look away! Look away! This review is filled with nothing but dismay!

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A Series of Unfortunate Events is a brand new Netflix show based on the not-so-new series of children’s books by Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket. It’s about the three Baudelaire children–Violet, Klaus, and Sunny–who lose their parents in a fire that destroys their home. Things only get worse for them after that, as they’re placed in the questionable care of Count Olaf, a no-good scoundrel and talentless actor who will stop at nothing to get his hands on their family fortune. Fortunately they’re able to use their talents–Violet’s knack for inventing, Klaus’s bookishness, and Sunny’s razor-sharp teeth–to stay one step ahead of him. But while the story may seem like a simple cat-and-mouse game between orphans and Olaf, there’s much more going on than meets the eye.

Before I get into what I thought of the show’s first season, I need to explain what the original books mean to me. As I may have mentioned before, I was a sheltered homeschooler, and like most sheltered homeschoolers of the ’90s, I wasn’t allowed to read Harry Potter. So A Series of Unfortunate Events was my Harry Potter. From the age of about 12 to 14, I was obsessed with these books. I read all of them, including the companion books The Unauthorized Autobiography and The Beatrice Letters. There was a Snicket website back in the day, where you could solve puzzles and decipher codes based on the books, so I spent time on that when I was first discovering the internet. My best friend and little brother were both into the books at the same time I was, so we bonded by swapping theories about who Beatrice was, what was in the sugar bowl, what was up with that question mark thingy, and other “conundrums of esoterica” from the series. It wasn’t just fun, either–I learned a ton from these books. They taught me words like “misnomer,” “inordinate,” and “denouement.” They introduced me to T.S. Eliot. I think they contributed greatly to the development of my dark, morbid sense of humour. And last but not least, they taught me how vitally important it is to have a library card.

“All the secrets of the world are contained in books. Read at your own risk.” – Lemony Snicket

I liked the Jim Carrey movie that adapted the first three books, but its humour was just a bit over the top at times (because, you know, Jim Carrey). It also had trouble committing to the books’ brand of black comedy and moral ambiguity. The ending was way too uplifting for a Snicket creation, just as one example.

For the most part, the show does better justice to the books. Well, the first four anyway–the first season only covers The Bad Beginning through The Miserable Mill. I think all long book series should be made into TV shows rather than movies. A show allows you to fit in so much more detail and character development, especially when the original author is on the writing team, as is the case here. And when your original book series is a huge puzzle, filled with subtle clues for the readers to piece together, it’s especially helpful to take some extra time to include them for the viewing audience. In this series we get to see a little more of what’s going on behind the scenes in the Baudelaires’ sad tale, which makes the puzzle a bit easier, but also fleshes out the zany, anachronistic world in which the series takes place that much more.

I think this show contains every type of telephone that has ever existed. And every fashion sense that ever could exist.

Neil Patrick Harris is perfect in the role of Count Olaf, and he even finds excuses to break out his singing voice–which sometimes sounds a little too close to “Dr. Horrible” for my taste, but the theme song is catchy. The rest of the cast is equally stellar (personally I thought Meryl Streep was funnier as Aunt Josephine, but Alfre Woodard isn’t bad). I’m especially impressed at how good Sunny’s “acting” is, considering she’s, you know, a baby. Not sure whether to give more credit to the editing, CGI, or baby training for that. But the best person in the cast is Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket. As expected, he narrates all the Baudelaires’ adventures, but I was a bit taken aback at first to see that he does so by looking straight into the camera. The books always made a big deal out of never showing Snicket’s face in pictures, so I wasn’t sure I’d like this approach. But he quickly won me over with his dry, deadpan, Rod Serling-esque performance. He’s the one who really makes this show as great as it is.

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off watching something else.”

Of course, it really helps that almost all the narration, as well as the dialogue, is lifted straight from the books. So we get to hear such gems of narration as, “If you are allergic to a thing, it is always best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is cats.” And we get to hear, completely intact, all the little vocabulary lessons and literary references Snicket slips in between adventures, which I love, since I’m even more of a book nerd than a movie nerd. Likewise, the sets, costumes, and occasional fourth wall breaking all perfectly match the atmosphere of the books.

This series is not for everyone. The doom and gloom is mostly played for laughs, but there are a few rather gruesome deaths, and Count Olaf can be genuinely creepy on occasion. If you’re not a fan of black comedy, you may find the story more disturbing than funny, and some kids might find it too scary. On the other hand, it also gets extremely silly at times, which may put off a whole other portion of the audience. But if you grew up with the books, or even if you just like your entertainment on the literary-faux-Gothic-neonoir-dark-humour side, you’ll probably enjoy it.

The world of A Series of Unfortunate Events is a dark and unpleasant one, to be sure. Most adults are either evil or criminally stupid, no one pays attention to children, and the answers to the mysteries of life are always just out of reach. But it’s also a world in which knowledge, hard work, and loyalty can help one survive, and even find moments of happiness. The answers to the Baudelaires’ questions, and the key to outwitting Count Olaf’s latest scheme, can always be found in a library. Their motivation to keep going, no matter how difficult their lives get, can always be found in their love for each other and the memory of their parents. As cartoonish as the orphans’ circumstances get, most people can relate to the feeling that the whole world is out to get you, so it’s rather uplifting to see our heroes struggle to stick up for each other and do the right thing, even against overwhelming odds. It’s clear that even the children’s best efforts won’t earn them a happy ending, so it’s still not the most uplifting message ever, but I’ll take it. Sometimes happy endings aren’t everything. Sometimes you need a story that teaches the value of staying true to your moral code and moving forward, even when there might not be a light at the end of the tunnel.

The forecast is “rainy, with a chance of arson.”

It’s also very important to teach people the proper use of the word “literally.” This show is doing the Lord’s work (not literally, of course).

Grade: A