2019年3月31日 星期日

Superhero Movies From October 2018 Onward (5)

For reviews of older superhero movies click here and here.  It felt like time to get rid of the "baggage" those older entries carried, so I'm starting again from October 2018's Venom.


Superhero Moves On The Way*


The Suicide Squad (Taiwan Release Date Unknown, August 6, 2021 in the States)

The Batman (Taiwan Release Date Unknown, June 25, 2021 in the States)

Morbius, the Living Vampire (Taiwan Release Date Unknown, July 31, 2020 in the States)

Wonder Woman 1984 (Taiwan Release Date Unknown, June 5, 2020 in the States)

Birds of Prey (Taiwan Release Date Unknown, February 7, 2020 in the States)

Joker (Taiwan Release Date Unknown, October 4, 2019 in the States)

The New Mutants (Comes Out in Taiwan August 2, 2019?)

Spider-Man: Far From Home (Comes Out in Taiwan July 3, 2019)

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (Comes Out in Taiwan June 6, 2019)

Avengers: Endgame (Comes Out in Taiwan April 24, 2019)

Hellboy (Comes  Out in Taiwan April 11, 2019)


Shazam!


What I Liked: Zachary Levi and Asher Angel are both examples of great casting, the story is well thought out, and the battle at the end takes some interesting twists and turns.  I consider Shazam! a vast improvement over Aquaman, which was trying to do too much in too short a time, and also Captain Marvel, which was in my opinion one hot mess of a movie.  Shazam! is much smaller-scale compared to those other two films, but its smallness works to its advantage.  It's very focused and to the point.

Mark Strong, who was wasted on Martin Campbell's Green Lantern, has much more to do in Shazam!  Even if his reasons for being "evil" aren't that well thought out, he's still a good (bad) villain.

What I Didn't Like: The battle at the end goes on a bit too long.  I think shortening it would have made for a better movie.  The introduction of the rest of the Marvel Family feels a bit rushed, even if it was gratifying to see them onscreen together.

Future/Sequels: No definite plans for any sequels as yet, but one of Shazam's other villains is introduced in a post-credits scene.  It's early to say, but I think this movie will be well received and I'd be surprised if a sequel isn't announced soon.


Captain Marvel


What I Liked: There's a part about halfway through, when Carol Danvers is reunited with an old friend.  In that part you can see Brie Larson's skill as an actress.

The fight on the spaceship near the end is oddly satisfying, but some of my satisfaction may have to do with 90s soundtrack, and the fact that I was a much younger guy when those songs were everywhere.  Nostalgia, in other words.

What I Didn't Like: Going back to the comic books, I never found Carol Danvers especially interesting, and this movie did nothing to change my mind.  Really, what is her reason for doing anything in this film?  At what point does her character change or make any real kind of discovery?

She's also so much more powerful than anyone she comes up against in this movie.  There's no sense of threat when "danger" strikes.  Jude Law?  Nope.  The Skrulls?  Not really.  Ronan the Accuser?  Their confrontation is a non-event.

I've also got to say, the explanation given for Nick Fury losing his eye really bothered me.  It's always seemed like this event should be of crucial importance, but in the movie it's explained in such an offhand manner.  The randomness of this explanation diminished the entire film.

Future/Sequels: Strap yourself in because Avengers: Endgame is less than two months away.  After Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home Marvel has announced no other films, though if Captain Marvel does well I'm sure we'll see a sequel.  I've heard a lot of talk about an Eternals movie, but we'll see.

I think what's going to make or break a Captain Marvel sequel is the Asian market, especially China.  If it goes over big in Beijing and Shanghai (as Aquaman did) you can be sure there will be another one.  If, however, this movie fails to find an audience in such places, I imagine Kevin Feige will start vaguely alluding to "future adventures" without making any real commitment.




Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Does this one count?  Batman and the Justice League are in it.  It also features the newer and older versions of Aquaman.

What I Liked: It's a funny movie, though not as good as the first.  This said, it's not nearly as hyper as the first one, which might be a relief for those who found the first film slightly overwhelming.

What I Didn't Like: It does drag a bit toward the end.  It's weird to say, but I found myself having to really concentrate on Lego Movie 2.  There are SO many references, to so many things, that after the first hour my brain got tired.  

Future/Sequels: There might be a sequel to the Lego Batman movie, though there's no release date as yet.  There might also be The Billion Brick Race.




Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

What I Liked: Everything.  In my opinion this movie's awesome from start to finish.  The characters, the plot, the animation, the soundtrack, all of it's great.  I suppose it depends on how it does financially, but Spider-Verse could be a real game-changer for CBMs.

For me the best part of the film was the Bill Sienkiewicz-inspired sequence halfway through.  I've been a huge fan of that guy for years, and seeing his art animated almost brought tears to my eyes.  That version of the Kingpin?  That's all Bill Sienkiewicz.

What I Didn't Like: Small complaint: no Spider-Woman.  I've always liked Spider-Woman more than Spider-Man, and it would've been wonderful to see Jessica Drew (finally) show up in this movie.

Future/Sequels: There's talk that Spider-Woman could feature in the sequel alongside Spider-Gwen and Silk, but such plans are tentative of course.  It's entirely possible that a sequel would feature Spider-Man 2099 instead.




Aquaman

What I Liked: Atlantis looks cool.  Amber Heard is easy on the eyes.  The battle in the end - aside from a ridiculous pause in the action for a predictably romantic moment - looks amazing.

What I Didn't Like: Weird moments of exposition.  Instead of showing the audience what's happening/has happened, the characters in this movie often feel the need to stop whatever they're doing and explain things.  The only part of this movie where the action flows seamlessly is when Aquaman and Black Manta have their big showdown halfway through.

The part in the beginning about Aquaman's parents could have been removed entirely.  It adds absolutely nothing to the story, and starting the movie from the adult Aquaman's first appearance would have made a lot more sense.

This movie gets dumber as it goes along.  By the end I was laughing at certain scenes and bits of dialogue, and I wasn't the only one.  And before someone chimes in with "at least it doesn't take itself so seriously," let's remember there's a difference between laughing WITH a movie and laughing AT a movie.

The small ray of hope being that it's not as terrible as Justice League.  Not that this is saying much.

Future/SequelsShazam!, also set in the DCEU, will be out in a few months.  After that it's a long wait until Wonder Woman 1984.  Aquaman 2?  It's kind of early to tell, but the movie's been doing well in China, and those wanting a completely brainless superhero romp will be all over this one.




Venom

What I Liked: After a really clunky beginning there are some great action sequences.  Everything after Venom shows up is much better than the 15 minutes that try (and fail) to set up the story.  The fight between Venom and Riot near the end is very good.

What I Didn't Like: That beginning part.  It feels like they weren't sure what kind of movie they were making.  Horror?  Action?  Science fiction?  Going more for the "body horror" elements would have improved the film, and the spaceship/alien invasion subplot could have been dispensed with altogether.

As clunky as the beginning is, the dialogue throughout the movie is by far the worst part.  None of the actors seem at ease with what they're saying, and a couple of lines are unintentionally hilarious.

Future/Sequels: There are plans for a sequel with Woody Harrelson's Carnage in a bigger role.  I think that after setting up the general premise, a sequel is bound to be better.  Harrelson would also make a great villain.  Last I heard, Sony's next comic-based movie will be Morbius the Living Vampire, with Jared Leto as Morbius.  There may be some crossover between Venom and Morbius.

Related Entries:

Some Other Movies From 1995
Some Other Movies From 1997
Some Other Movies From 1999
The Other Movie Oscars: The 2000s

2019年3月28日 星期四

Some Other Movies From 1995

I thought it over, and I'm pretty sure that in 1995 I was working at Home Depot, and living near Green Lake.  It was a good year for me.  I suppose that year was when I was learning how to be an adult.

The top 5 movies of 1995 were Toy Story, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Apollo 13, GoldenEye, and PocahontasGoldenEye remains one of the best Bond movies, and it should be noted that it was also directed by Martin Campbell, who later directed Daniel Craig in Casino Royale.  A lot of people think Judi Dench was introduced as Q in the Daniel Craig movies, but her first appearance as the character was in GoldenEye.

Oh, and Se7en came out that year too.  I'd be hard-pressed to say which was better, GoldenEye or Se7en, but they're both indisputably great.  As a huge Bond fan I'm inclined to say GoldenEye, but yeah, Se7en...

Other good movies from 1995 were Braveheart, Leaving Las Vegas, Murder in the First, Apollo 13, The Usual Suspects (big year for Kevin Spacey), 12 Monkeys, Trainspotting, In the Mouth of Madness, The Quick and the Dead, Rob Roy, The Basketball Diaries, Crimson Tide, Kids, Desperado, Showgirls (a very misunderstood movie), Dead Presidents, Casino, Wild Bill and Heat.  It's hard to believe Casino and Heat came out the same year, but then again the early 90s were a good time for gangster movies.

Worst movie?  I'd nominate Batman Forever.  I grew up reading Batman comics, and even I had a hard time focusing on this movie.  Something about it just seemed so all over the place, as if it didn't know what it wanted to be, or why.




Some Good Ones

1. Die Hard with a Vengeance

Surprisingly, I'd never seen this before.  In this one Bruce Willis and Samuel Jackson team up to stop Jeremy Irons.  Director John McTiernan uses New York in the way he used the skyscraper in the first movie.  I liked it more than the first one, but then again I've never understood the popularity of the first one.

In a way it's too bad Jeremy Irons is so much older now.  He would have been the perfect choice to play David Bowie whenever that biopic is inevitably made.

2. Ghost in the Shell

Don't bother with the more recent live-action version.  It's boring.  It's like a mountain made out of a molehill, or at best an excuse for Scarlett Johansson to walk around almost-nude.  The original anime is far better, even if the animation looks a bit dated now.  Just get settled in with a nice cup of coffee, because it gets kind of deep.

3. Whisper of the Heart

The complete opposite of Ghost in the Shell in almost every respect.  Where Ghost in the Shell is intellectual, this one's romantic.  Where Ghost in the Shell is action and intrigue, this one's about daily life.  Instead of the cyborgs and AI in Ghost in the Shell, Whisper of the Heart is about junior high school students confronting adulthood.  But both movies are good.  This one's also really sweet, and if you have the patience to make it to the end it will leave you with a very hopeful feeling.

Fun Fact: This anime was produced by Studio Ghibli, the same studio that produced the celebrated Spirited Away.  It was directed by a different person however, and didn't enjoy the same level of success.  A sequel, The Cat Returns, was released in 2002.

4. Tales from the Hood

Inner-city, episodic horror film in the tradition of Creepshow and Tales from the Crypt (below).  I was prepared to hate it, but as it turns out it's really good.  The fourth of the four parts, reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange, is somewhat preachy and obvious, but the first three parts were well done.  I particularly liked the second part, featuring a standout performance by David Alan Grier.

Fun Fact #1: David Alan Grier also appeared in Jumanji (below).  I always felt like that guy should have been more famous.

Fun Fact #2: The sequel, Tales from the Hood 2, was released as recently as 2018.

5. The Cure

Heartwarming and all, but going out into the woods and boiling whatever plants you find will probably kill you at some point.  In The Cure two boys become friends while one of them contends with AIDS.  It's well-acted and suitably understated.

6. Choke

Documentary centered around Rickson Gracie's participation in the Vale Tudo tournament.  It was 1995, so ultimate fighting wasn't really a thing yet, and the sport is referred to as "no-holds-barred fighting," "street fighting," and "freestyle fighting" at different points in the documentary.  I'm still not a huge fan of this sport but the documentary was interesting.




Two That Are Just Alright

1. Dead Man

Predictably arty film by Jim Jarmusch.  Johnny Depp stars as an accountant in a Western frontier town.  Interesting cast, but it moves very slowly and I didn't like it as much as some of Jarmusch's other films.  Reviewers have compared it to Cormac McCarthy's book Blood Meridian but it's not nearly that good.

Fun Fact: This was Robert Mitchum's very last movie.

2. Catwalk

Documentary on the state of fashion in 1995, featuring Christy Turlington.  Being a heterosexual man, I could only enjoy this one so much, but it passes by quickly enough.  Not very much depth to it, however.




Some Bad Ones

1. Friday

Five things about this movie:

     a. Chris Tucker totally carries the whole thing.  I guess Ice Cube could claim he was playing the straight man, but naw - it's Chris Tucker front to back.

     b. It needs more of a plot.  There are some funny bits in it, but in between the funny bits not much happens.

     c. The soundtrack needed work.  Whoever did it needed to think about how a good soundtrack anticipates and builds on the mood of each scene.  As it is, songs come on occasionally and it's always a relief when they do.  There's too much talking over silence.

     d. This movie wasn't, in my opinion, a success in terms of quality.  Yeah it made money, but it's just not very good.  This said, its heart was in the right place, and director F. Gary Gray went on to make much better movies.  At least some of what Ice Cube learned in the making of Friday contributed to the far superior Straight Outta Compton.

     e. This movie's cross-cultural appeal is not to be underestimated.  I watched it with my Taiwanese wife, and she thought it was hilarious.  At first glance it seems very "black," very inner-city, but a lot of what people like about Friday crosses cultural barriers.  My wife grew up in a small farming village not far from the Taiwan Strait, and yet this movie still reminded her of people, places and things from her hometown.

2. Jumanji

It's not so much that the cgi looks so dated, but that the rules of the board-game-turned-real are so arbitrary.  It's hard to stay invested in the plot when from moment to moment literally anything could happen.  As such movies go I think 2005's Zathura was much better, and even the more recent Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is head and shoulders above the original.

I'm just wondering though, which timeline is Jumaji: Welcome to the Jungle set in, exactly?  The one where Robin Williams' parents die or the one where they don't?

3. Hackers

Movie about hackers written by people who didn't know much about hackers, or computers, or law enforcement.  There's a group of good New York fashion victim hackers, and they have to outwit an evil New York fashion victim hacker.  Angelina Jolie is the most famous of the hackers, but in this movie she mostly just walks around and sulks.

Fun Fact: After filming, Jolie and male lead Johnny Lee Miller got married.  They were divorced 18 months later.

4. Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight

Gore with a side of big 'ol titties.  It has the same campy tone as the cable TV show, but as it turns out it's a lot harder to sustain that tone over the course of a 1.5 hour movie.  Billy Zane (!) and William Sadler star.  The plot?  Some nonsense about preventing hell on Earth.

Fun Fact #1: The sheriff's deputy in this movie is played by Johnny Depp's Indian friend in Dead Man.

Fun Fact #2: This movie was supposed to be the second part of a trilogy.  Various production difficulties led to it appearing first, before the proposed first part.  A sequel of sorts, Bordello of Blood, was released a year later.  I have no doubt that Bordello of Blood features even more big 'ol titties, and also a healthy dose of gore.

5. The Scarlet Letter

Demi Moore and Gary Oldman lead this "free adaptation" of the famed Nathaniel Hawthorne story.  It was only three years after Gary Oldman appeared in Bram Stoker's Dracula, so he still had that "erotic" thing going on.  The trouble is that this movie is tedious in the extreme, and it misunderstands the appeal of Hawthorne's (much better) story.

6. Family of Cops

Damn Charles Bronson was a bad actor.  In this one he stars as the head of - you guessed it - a family of cops.  The extremely formulaic script keeps it from spilling over into so-bad-it's-good territory, but it's definitely not great.  

Bronson, by the way, was 74 years old when this movie was filmed.  His last movie was Family of Cops 3 in 1999.  He passed away in 2003.




WTF? (But in a Good Way)

1. Top Dog

Master thespian Chuck Norris and an unbelievably irritating dog team up to solve crimes.  It's only 1.5 hours long and yet manages to make almost no sense at all.  Uh... drugs?  Uh... Neo-Nazis?  Uh... what?

Fun Fact: This film was directed by Chuck Norris' little brother, Aaron Norris.




Straight Horror Cheese

1. The Mangler

Tobe "Texas Chainsaw" Hooper directed this movie about a industrial washing machine that kills people.  The most famous person in the cast is Robert Englund.  Apparently they didn't have enough money in the budget for an actual police uniform for the lead character, and the acting is predictably bad throughout.

I got about halfway through and had to quit.  Between the first death and the foregone conclusion that is the machine's destruction, this movie goes nowhere.

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2019年3月24日 星期日

"American Sniper" by Chris Kyle (2012)


"I realize that a lot of the problem has to do with the screwed-up culture in Iraq.  These people had been under a dictatorship for all their lives.  Iraq as a country meant nothing to them, or at least nothing good.  Most were happy to be rid of Saddam Hussein, very happy to be free people, but they didn't understand what that really meant - the other things that come with being free."

Chris Kyle was a Navy SEAL.  He was originally from Texas, and later served four tours of duty ("deployments") in Iraq during the early 2000s.  His service as a sniper earned him several medals, and the number of his recorded kills earned him the nickname "The Legend."  Clint Eastwood later directed a film adaptation of this book, and this film - starring Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle - was released in 2014 to both critical acclaim and commercial success.

American Sniper is a straightforward autobiography, with Kyle recounting his early years in Texas, his SEAL training, his years in Iraq, and his eventual return to home and family.  His ethos of "God, country, family" will probably rub many liberal types the wrong way, but I must say I found his honesty refreshing.  Even if I don't share many of his priorities, I found much of American Sniper to be a fascinating glimpse into everything from military training to American strategy in Iraq.

If you're looking for moral ambiguity, however, look elsewhere.  Kyle frequently describes the insurgents he fought as "savages," and never questions either his need to kill them or the broader military objectives in Iraq.  This is obvious from the very first chapter, in which he guns down a female insurgent.

If you enjoyed the movie, the book adds a lot of dimension to that story.  If you didn't enjoy the movie, you probably won't like the book.  For my part I enjoyed Clint Eastwood's take on American Sniper, and I think that those able to suspend judgement on guys like Kyle will find his story very engaging.  In the age of Trump I'm sure a lot of people will read American Sniper and see everything that's wrong with America, but if you can really hear him, and give him the time to explain what he's about, you might learn to like him and understand some of his motivations.  In this time of national division, developing that kind of empathy might be the most important thing you could do.

Related Entries:

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"Political Order and Political Decay" by Francis Fukuyama (2015)
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2019年3月19日 星期二

"How Google Works" by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg (2014)


"First, keep it flat.  In most companies, there is a basic underlying tension: People claim that they want a flat organization so they can be closer to the top, but in fact they usually long for hierarchy.  Smart creatives are different: They prefer a flat organization, less because they want to be closer to the top and more because they want to get things done and need direct access to decision-makers."

At the time this book was published, Eric Schmidt was the Executive Chairman of Google, and Jonathan Rosenberg was a former SVP (whatever that means) of Products.  At the time of writing, Schmidt is the Executive Chairman of Alphabet, Inc., a parent company of Google, and Rosenberg is also working with (for?) Alphabet, Inc.  Schmidt is also ranked the 119th richest person in the world.  Both Schmidt and Rosenberg wrote How Google Works as a way of explaining Google's corporate philosophy.

Anyone with a computer - or maybe even anyone alive - knows Google's recent history.  The company started with their search engine, which at the time was competing with alternatives such as Microsoft's Bing and Ask Jeeves, and quickly rose to become the most influential tech company in the world.  They've also developed the Android operating system for mobile devices, bought up YouTube, and their map application, Google Maps, has become indispensable for countless users worldwide.

What might be less obvious is the corporate philosophy that has allowed this company to survive in an economy where technology continues to accelerate the rate of change.  The core of this philosophy, as the quote above suggests, is in the creation of an environment where "smart creatives" can thrive.  These smart creatives are people who innovate, not out of a desire for money but out of a need to change things.  Establishing the kind of environment that attracts (and retains) smart creatives involves a less hierarchical corporate structure, freedom to pursue individual projects, and mechanisms within the company that allow it to respond better to market forces.

As you can imagine, How Google Works is full of corporatespeak and references to bygone competitors.  It probably sounds boring to you, but it's a surprisingly easy read and I found it fairly engaging throughout.  It also had me thinking about schools where I've worked, and whether or not the Google corporate model could be applied to them.  I have grave doubts that this is possible, but in the right kind of private school, with the right kind of teachers, it just might work. 

If you're like a lot of people, you find Google both useful and kind of scary.  Useful because it's the only thing going in certain areas, and scary because it often symbolizes everything that's "wrong" with the world.  I share some of your trepidation, but I can also say that reading this book has made Google less scary for me, and it's also helped me understand some of what's driving the tech industry.  I still can't say that I view Google in entirely benign terms, but reading How Google Works has softened my opinions to some extent.

Expecting "ideological consistency" from a book written in such a general way is silly, but after reading How Google Works I recommend reading this article in The Guardian.  It points out some of the ways in which Google's history as presented in this book clashes with what actually happened.  I think this review is more pedantic than that book deserves, but it's still worth reading.

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2019年3月15日 星期五

Some Other Movies From 1997

In 1997 I was either a student at Bellevue Community College or the University of Washington.  I was either living in Kirkland or living in Seattle.  If I was living in Seattle, I was either living in my grandpa's house or in a basement apartment near the university.  It was a long time ago.

I must have seen a lot of movies that year, because I had a hell of a time finding 1997 movies that I hadn't seen.  I did my best with the selection below, but as you can see I was grasping at straws.  

In desperation I almost resorted to the adult films of 1997, but if you've seen one of those you've seen them all.  There's really not much to be written about those movies - the only thing that changes is the hair.

The biggest movies of 1997 were Titanic, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Men in Black, Tomorrow Never Dies and Air Force One.  I never could get into Titanic, the appeal of the Jurassic Park movies was lost on me, I thought Men in Black was boring, and Tomorrow Never Dies is one of the worst Bond films.  I did like Air Force One.  It was big and dumb and obvious, but it was very watchable.  My favorite of that year's blockbusters were As Good As It Gets and The Fifth Element.

Awards-winners of 1997 included Titanic, As Good As It Gets, L.A. Confidential (great movie), Good Will Hunting and Boogie Nights.  I think that of these movies Boogie Nights remains the most memorable, though Good Will Hunting is also still great.

Other good movies of 1997 were The Ice Storm, Donnie Brasco, Face/Off (even if it does look dated now), Contact, 187, Cop Land, Event Horizon, G.I. Jane, In & Out, The Edge, Gattaca, Starship Troopers, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Amistad and Jackie Brown.

In the "Worst Film" category I'd nominate Spawn, one of the worst comic book movies ever made.  I realize that there are comic book movie fans who love to put on rose-colored glasses, and focus on what this movie got right, but the amount of stuff it got right was overwhelmed by all the stuff it got wrong.  It's really not very good, and those thinking that the reboot - if it ever gets made - will be better are exercising some seriously wishful thinking.




Some Good Ones

1. Unagi ("The Eel")

Japanese movie about a man resettling in a small town after murdering his wife.  It's on the slow side but very good.

2. A Taste of Cherry

Sounds like porn but isn't.  It's an Iranian movie about a man contemplating suicide - so yeah - the complete opposite of porn.  It's worth noting that A Taste of Cherry shared the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival with Unagi ("The Eel") above.

There's an interesting debate between Roger Ebert and other critics regarding director Abbas Kiarostami's way of distancing the viewer from the story presented in the film.  Ebert regards Kiarostami's method of direction as "an affectation," while others point to the possibility that Kiarostami was either unaware of or oblivious to Western approaches to the same subject matter.  I'm not familiar enough with the director to have an opinion on the matter, but I thought the discussion was interesting.

Oh, and if forced to pick between this movie and Unagi I'd definitely pick Unagi.  A lot more happens in that movie, and not just sex and violence.  A Taste of Cherry requires much more patience.

3. The Boxer

An ex-IRA soldier returns to his boxing career after a stint in prison.  Daniel Day-Lewis and Emily Watson star, with Jim Sheridan directing.  It's an excellent movie, and Watson and Day-Lewis have terrific chemistry.  Jim Sheridan, by the way, also directed 2009's Brothers, another underrated movie.

4. Kundun

On the one hand this movie feels like it was made for weed.  After smoking a bowl this movie would just flow like water.  On the other hand, if you don't have any weed it will seem pretty slow.  I didn't have any weed, so I had to break my viewing experience into two parts.

It's definitely the artiest movie Martin Scorsese ever made, but if you like his other religious films - The Last Temptation of Christ and the more recent Silence come to mind - you'll probably also like this one.

One funny thing about it is that in 1997 I was working with two Tibetan brothers in Seattle, one of whom was named Tenzin, just like the 14th Dalai Lama.  The 14th Dalai Lama's life is the subject of this movie.

Kundun was a financial failure but a critical success.  For my part, I had trouble maintaining interest until the Chinese showed up, but after that point I couldn't help but reflect on the hunger for land prevalent among communists, and about how people/leaders/governments claim to care about your freedom while they're taking it away.  Tibet, Hong Kong... and maybe one day Taiwan, the country where I'm typing this.

Fun Fact: The woman who wrote the screenplay for this movie also wrote E.T.

5. Generation E

Documentary on Ecstasy and rave culture in London.  It doesn't take sides, and some of the opinions offered are very interesting.  I still can't stand rave/techno music, but I guess that's what the mute button is for.

6. Shadow Conspiracy

Political thriller starring Charlie Sheen as a presidential adviser.  It was directed by George P. Cosmatos, who also directed Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra, so it has that 80s action vibe to it.  Cosmatos was always an underrated director, and Shadow Conspiracy was his last movie.

Critics in 1997 were not kind to this film, and while it's not a masterpiece I don't think it deserved the lambasting it received.  At the time many critics made fun of the assassin's attempt at killing the President, but in 2019 this method is completely feasible.

7. Little Dieter Needs to Fly

Werner Herzog's documentary about Dieter Dengler, German-born POW who escaped Vietnam after months of torture during the Vietnam War.  Herzog would later make Dengler the subject of his 2006 film Rescue Dawn, and this movie offers an interesting study of what really happened in that Vietnamese POW camp.

8. The CIA: America's Secret Warriors

Two part documentary on the CIA's history and internal conflicts.  I knew most of this stuff already, but it was a decent refresher course on the topic.  It ends with the Clinton years, so naturally cyber warfare and cyber espionage aren't covered.

9. The Wrong Guy

Hey it's Dave Foley, from semi-popular Canadian sketch comedy TV show The Kids in the Hall!  In The Wrong Guy he plays a man wrongly not accused of a crime he didn't commit.  No, you didn't read that wrong.  It takes a while to get going, but the second half is very funny.  Both this one and Brain Candy are very overlooked movies.

10. Black Wednesday

Documentary on Britain's 1992 financial crisis.  I'm not that knowledgeable on European finance, but apparently the crisis was caused by Britain linking the Pound to the German Mark.  What struck me most about this crisis was the huge technological gap between those making the decisions and the banking system itself.




Good, but Disturbing

1. No Child of Mine

British film about a sexually abused girl.  I can't help but wonder if the author of Precious saw this one.  Of course they deal with similar themes, but they seem too similar for it to be a coincidence.  Both movies are really hard to watch.




Some Bad Ones

1. Mad City

With John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman being so much more elderly in 2019, it's somewhat surprising to see them much younger in Mad City.  Hoffman stars as an overly ambitious reporter, with Travolta as a disgruntled ex-security guard who takes a group of museum patrons hostage.  It goes from boring to dumb really fast, and I only made it halfway through.

2. The Butcher Boy

Neil Jordan's take on growing up in Ireland.  It's a lot like Angela's Ashes, but without the crushing poverty.  The boy at the center of the story is extremely unlikable, and the adults around him are easily deceived.

I've got to say, Neil Jordan is very on again, off again for me.  For every movie like Mona Lisa there's a High Spirits, and for every Crying Game there's a Butcher Boy.  For all I know someone else might love The Butcher Boy, but I found the coy nature of the story very irritating.




Two So Bad They're Good

1. Drive

No, not THAT Drive!  This is the other Drive, from 1997!

And hey... isn't that Mark Dacascos?  The Capoeira guy from Only the Strong?  And isn't that Kadeem Hardison, from A Different World?  Yes, I believe it is!

This straight-to-video masterwork features some of the most ridiculous fight scenes ever, with wooden tables that somehow deflect bullets and bad guys that can't shoot for shit.  It's genuinely hilarious, and also one of the best good bad films I've seen in a while.

Towards the end one of the bad guys actually says "You remind me of a little dairy cow... and I'm milking you!" all whilst strangling Kadeem Hardison with a whip.

Fun Fact #1: Drive came out three years after Dacascos starred in the even more gloriously bad Double Dragon.

Fun Fact #2: Dacascos will be playing one of the main villains in the upcoming John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum.

2. The Shadow Men

Eric Roberts and Sherilyn Fenn star as a couple who cross paths with aliens.  It's fairly cheesy, but does manage to be creepy at times.  I particularly loved the scene where Roberts' coworker tries to explain the internet to him.

"MiB... meet TNT!!!"

Fun Fact: This came out the same year as the first Men in Black, and features a more sinister version of the same conspiracy fodder.

Related Entries:

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Some Other Movies From 1999
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Some Other Movies From 2001

2019年3月14日 星期四

"Artemis" by Andy Weir (2017)


"'Yeah, but...'  He looked pensive.  'I mean, it's not your style.  It was risky - and you're really smart.  You don't take risks unless you have to.  You're not desperate for cash or anything, so far as I know.  I mean, yeah, you're poor.  But you're stable.  Do you owe loan sharks or something?"

Andy Weir was a computer programmer who took up writing full-time after the success of his first novel, The Martian.  As just about everyone knows, The Martian was later adapted into a popular movie.  And yes, there are plans to turn Artemis into a movie too.

In Artemis a young woman by the name of Jasmine or "Jazz" works as a porter and smuggler on the moon.  The name of her lunar colony is - you guessed it - Artemis.  At a certain point Jazz runs afoul of a Brazilian crime syndicate, and her attempt to save Artemis from this syndicate gives shape to the rest of the book.

In the most general terms Artemis a heist novel, whereas Weir's previous book, The Martian, was more a story of survival.  The author himself says as much in an appendix.  Compared to The Martian, Artemis is more complicated by other characters and political/economic details, and also less focused on the general problem of living on the moon.  This said, it's still a very scientific approach to what life on the moon might be like, and Weir's characteristic love of scientific detail is very much in the foreground.

As sci-fi novels go it's an entertaining read and firmly within the genre.  There are of course a thousand other extraterrestrial colony vs. rugged individualist stories in this genre, and Artemis offers no real twist on what has come before.  It's only real edge over similar stories is the level of detail the author puts into it.

My only complaint about this book is that the protagonist is a bit too similar to Mark Watney from The Martian.  She's also - like Mark Watney - incredibly immature at times, and the way she acts seems at odds with her unbelievably vast knowledge of physics, chemistry and other fields.  I think making her more mature would have made her more believable, especially given the gravity (if you'll excuse the pun) of certain situations.

This is, however, a small complaint.  On the whole reading Artemis was good fun, and I look forward to whatever the author comes up with next.

Related Entries:

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"The Martian" by Andy Wier (2011)

2019年3月11日 星期一

Albums That Changed My Life 5: Rush's First Album and "Power Windows"


I believe these were the first albums I ever bought with my own money.  I was staying with my grandma in Oregon that summer, and I bought the two albums on cassette in the Astoria Fred Meyer.

As I recall, Power Windows was the most recent album by Rush that year.  This means that it couldn't have been any later than 1985.  I remember buying Hold Your Fire when I was in junior high school, so yeah, it was 1985 at the latest.  This also means that I would have been in the fifth or sixth grade.

I bought the first, self-titled Rush album because it was cheap.  Back then the "Nice Price" cassettes went for four or five dollars, and buying two Rush albums instead of one seemed like a good way to start my tape collection.  I don't believe I'd heard a single song off the first Rush album, though I remember being familiar with the song "Big Money" on Power Windows.

After buying my cassette tapes my grandma and I went back to her house in Bay City, Oregon.  Bay City is just north of Tillamook, where they make the cheese.  It was about an hour drive past foggy, tree-lined beaches, through several tunnels, and over bridges that spanned small streams.  The Oregon Coast was a lot less developed back then, though some of towns closer to Tillamook look just as they did when I was little.

In my grandma's house I had a cassette player which I used to play my tapes.  The walls in that house were very thin, so my initial acquaintance with Rush was punctuated by my grandma's banging on the door and insisting that I turn the music down.  To this day I have no idea what kind of music my grandma favored, but whatever kind it was she must have favored it in exceedingly small amounts.



At ten or eleven years old I favored Power Windows over the first Rush album.  Power Windows was full of synthesizers, I thought the lyrics were "deep," and it seemed more "modern" to me.  These elements are, of course, the very things that date that album now.  Whereas the first album - if you knew very little about hard rock - could have been produced in any decade from the 70s onward, Power Windows is very much a product of the 80s, in both good and bad ways.

The first album was also a product of its decade, but you'd have to know a bit more about the band to understand this.  At 44 years of age, I know all about how Zeppelin and Cream influenced that band, and yeah, it's very much in the vein of other albums released during the mid to late 70s.  In some ways it wasn't quite as on top of things as Power Windows, but it definitely belongs to that era.

Over time, my appreciation of both albums has gone in opposite directions.  In 2019 I'd have to say that I love the first album's purity, its energy, and its lack of pretension.  Yes, the lyrics to songs like "In the Mood" are ridiculous, but that's part of the fun.  It's cock rock, and Geddy Lee was always about as far from the archetypical rock screamer as you could get.  This incongruity only adds to the music's charm.  

Power Windows, however, hasn't aged well for me.  I'm not fond of the way Geddy Lee sang at that stage in their career, and the earnestness/pretentiousness of Neil Peart's lyrics is downright embarrassing.  That, and it's sequenced to death - to the point where you don't know who's playing what.  It's certainly an album that tries very hard - Rush always put everything they had into every album they did - but in 2019 it sounds pretty old fashioned.

A lot of stuff is like that though.  Some bands - and some albums -age like wine, while others turn to vinegar.  There are still albums from the 80s that I've enjoyed for decades, but Power Windows isn't one of them.  In 2019 it just doesn't convince me the way it once did, even though it blew my mind back in 1985.



Related Entries:

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"A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)


"Since then, he has tried to tell Willem more things.  But there are so many topics that he has never discussed with anyone since Ana, now twenty five years ago, that he finds he literally doesn't have the language to do so.  His past, his fears, what was done to him, what he has done to himself - they are subjects that can only be discussed in tongues he doesn't speak: Farsi, Urdu, Mandarin, Portuguese.  Once, he tried to write things down, thinking that it might be easier, but it wasn't - he is unclear how to explain himself to himself."

Hanya Yanagihara is a novelist, editor and travel writer from Hawaii.  A Little Life is her second and most recent book.  Her first was The People in the Trees.

In A Little Life, four college roommates work their way toward fame and fortune in New York.  There's Willem, an actor and transplant from the West.  There's JB, a flamboyantly gay artist.  There's Malcom, pursuing a career in architecture.  And lastly there's Jude, a young man with legal aspirations.  As they rise to prominence in their respective fields, they fall into and out of touch with each other, drawn back together every few months by their shared memories of college life.

On the plus side this is an excellently written book, with prose that flows from beginning to end without ever growing stultified or repetitious.  Many more seasoned authors would have had trouble sustaining a tone through a novel this length, but Hanya Hanakigara succeeds admirably.  Compare this novel to just about anything else released recently, and I think that in terms of style she easily beats out anyone else.

Her character Jude is also an unqualified success.  Jude is the most fully realized character I've seen in any book for quite some time.  Even after finishing the novel I felt that he had been physically present somewhere, in the world beyond the pages of the book.  Parts of Jude's personal history are truly heartbreaking, and his development as a character is both moving and completely believable.  This doesn't mean that all of Jude's backstory makes for easy reading, but I never felt my interest in him waver.  His struggles, hard as they were to read about, kept me invested until the very end.

On the minus side, however, I found the male characters in this book entirely too effeminate, to the point where they felt like stand-ins for women.  The fact that several of them are gay did nothing to lessen this feeling, since even gay men have certain archetypes and modes of behavior to answer to.  The amount of time the men in this book - gay or otherwise - spend kissing and fondling each other seemed to detract from its authenticity, and during several junctures it pulled me right out of the narrative.  It was a bit like reading one of those manga titles centered on homosexual love, the type directed at adolescent (Japanese) girls.

And this is not the book's greatest weakness.  What stands out to me most about A Little Life is how undeveloped some of its characters are.  Jude and Willem?  Not a problem.  Their narrative takes up most of the book.  But Malcolm and JB?  They are barely present in a book that claims to be about "four friends," and by the end one wonders why the author bothered to include them at all.  Giving them more of a presence in the book would have strengthened the finished product.  As it is, A Little Life feels very lopsided, as if there's a whole other half that wasn't included in the final printing.

Oh, and it's crazy depressing.  On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being "hilarious" and 10 being "made me suicidal," this book is a solid 11.  Jude's personal struggles are so unrelenting, and he's so tortured by a past he can't admit to, that by the end I started to wonder why he bothered at all, and for who's sake.  There could have been more lighter moments in this book; there could have been more pauses between descents into tragedy.  As it is it just continues on, dirge-like, until the reader grows frustrated - and at times even bored - with the material.  A "turning away" from Jude's travails at certain points wouldn't have weakened the book, it would have made it better.  It would have placed his struggles in a larger context.

Not that I disliked A Little Life.  To the contrary, it's one of the best books I've read in a long while, and when it's good, it's really good.  Perhaps some of my frustration with it is merely due to its length, which seems to portend a more momentous kind of fiction.  I'll be carrying Jude with me for a while, but I can't help but feel that the world he inhabited could have been a bit more varied, and a bit more populated by other people.

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2019年3月6日 星期三

Superhero Movies From October 2018 Onward (4)

For reviews of older superhero movies click here and here.  It felt like time to get rid of the "baggage" those older entries carried, so I'm starting again from October 2018's Venom.


Superhero Moves On The Way*


The Suicide Squad (Taiwan Release Date Unknown, August 6, 2021 in the States)

The Batman (Taiwan Release Date Unknown, June 25, 2021 in the States)

Morbius, the Living Vampire (Taiwan Release Date Unknown, July 31, 2020 in the States)

Wonder Woman 1984 (Taiwan Release Date Unknown, June 5, 2020 in the States)

Birds of Prey (Taiwan Release Date Unknown, February 7, 2020 in the States)

Joker (Taiwan Release Date Unknown, October 4, 2019 in the States)

The New Mutants (Comes Out in Taiwan August 2, 2019?)

Spider-Man: Far From Home (Comes Out in Taiwan July 3, 2019)

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (Comes Out in Taiwan June 7, 2019)

Avengers: Endgame (Comes Out in Taiwan April 26, 2019)

Hellboy (Comes  Out in Taiwan April 12, 2019)

Shazam! (Comes Out in Taiwan April 3, 2019)


Captain Marvel


What I Liked: There's a part about halfway through, when Carol Danvers is reunited with an old friend.  In that part you can see Brie Larson's skill as an actress.

The fight on the spaceship near the end is oddly satisfying, but some of my satisfaction may have to do with 90s soundtrack, and the fact that I was a much younger guy when those songs were everywhere.  Nostalgia, in other words.

What I Didn't Like: Going back to the comic books, I never found Carol Danvers especially interesting, and this movie did nothing to change my mind.  Really, what is her reason for doing anything in this film?  At what point does her character change or make any real kind of discovery?

She's also so much more powerful than anyone she comes up against in this movie.  There's no sense of threat when "danger" strikes.  Jude Law?  Nope.  The Skrulls?  Not really.  Ronan the Accuser?  Their confrontation is a non-event.

I've also got to say, the explanation given for Nick Fury losing his eye really bothered me.  It's always seemed like this event should be of crucial importance, but in the movie it's explained in such an offhand manner.  The randomness of this explanation diminished the entire film.

Future/Sequels: Strap yourself in because Avengers: Endgame is less than two months away.  After Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home Marvel has announced no other films, though if Captain Marvel does well I'm sure we'll see a sequel.  I've heard a lot of talk about an Eternals movie, but we'll see.

I think what's going to make or break a Captain Marvel sequel is the Asian market, especially China.  If it goes over big in Beijing and Shanghai (as Aquaman did) you can be sure there will be another one.  If, however, this movie fails to find an audience in such places, I imagine Kevin Feige will start vaguely alluding to "future adventures" without making any real commitment.




Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Does this one count?  Batman and the Justice League are in it.  It also features the newer and older versions of Aquaman.

What I Liked: It's a funny movie, though not as good as the first.  This said, it's not nearly as hyper as the first one, which might be a relief for those who found the first film slightly overwhelming.

What I Didn't Like: It does drag a bit toward the end.  It's weird to say, but I found myself having to really concentrate on Lego Movie 2.  There are SO many references, to so many things, that after the first hour my brain got tired.  

Future/Sequels: There might be a sequel to the Lego Batman movie, though there's no release date as yet.  There might also be The Billion Brick Race.




Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

What I Liked: Everything.  In my opinion this movie's awesome from start to finish.  The characters, the plot, the animation, the soundtrack, all of it's great.  I suppose it depends on how it does financially, but Spider-Verse could be a real game-changer for CBMs.

For me the best part of the film was the Bill Sienkiewicz-inspired sequence halfway through.  I've been a huge fan of that guy for years, and seeing his art animated almost brought tears to my eyes.  That version of the Kingpin?  That's all Bill Sienkiewicz.

What I Didn't Like: Small complaint: no Spider-Woman.  I've always liked Spider-Woman more than Spider-Man, and it would've been wonderful to see Jessica Drew (finally) show up in this movie.

Future/Sequels: There's talk that Spider-Woman could feature in the sequel alongside Spider-Gwen and Silk, but such plans are tentative of course.  It's entirely possible that a sequel would feature Spider-Man 2099 instead.




Aquaman

What I Liked: Atlantis looks cool.  Amber Heard is easy on the eyes.  The battle in the end - aside from a ridiculous pause in the action for a predictably romantic moment - looks amazing.

What I Didn't Like: Weird moments of exposition.  Instead of showing the audience what's happening/has happened, the characters in this movie often feel the need to stop whatever they're doing and explain things.  The only part of this movie where the action flows seamlessly is when Aquaman and Black Manta have their big showdown halfway through.

The part in the beginning about Aquaman's parents could have been removed entirely.  It adds absolutely nothing to the story, and starting the movie from the adult Aquaman's first appearance would have made a lot more sense.

This movie gets dumber as it goes along.  By the end I was laughing at certain scenes and bits of dialogue, and I wasn't the only one.  And before someone chimes in with "at least it doesn't take itself so seriously," let's remember there's a difference between laughing WITH a movie and laughing AT a movie.

The small ray of hope being that it's not as terrible as Justice League.  Not that this is saying much.

Future/SequelsShazam!, also set in the DCEU, will be out in a few months.  After that it's a long wait until Wonder Woman 1984.  Aquaman 2?  It's kind of early to tell, but the movie's been doing well in China, and those wanting a completely brainless superhero romp will be all over this one.




Venom

What I Liked: After a really clunky beginning there are some great action sequences.  Everything after Venom shows up is much better than the 15 minutes that try (and fail) to set up the story.  The fight between Venom and Riot near the end is very good.

What I Didn't Like: That beginning part.  It feels like they weren't sure what kind of movie they were making.  Horror?  Action?  Science fiction?  Going more for the "body horror" elements would have improved the film, and the spaceship/alien invasion subplot could have been dispensed with altogether.

As clunky as the beginning is, the dialogue throughout the movie is by far the worst part.  None of the actors seem at ease with what they're saying, and a couple of lines are unintentionally hilarious.

Future/Sequels: There are plans for a sequel with Woody Harrelson's Carnage in a bigger role.  I think that after setting up the general premise, a sequel is bound to be better.  Harrelson would also make a great villain.  Last I heard, Sony's next comic-based movie will be Morbius the Living Vampire, with Jared Leto as Morbius.  There may be some crossover between Venom and Morbius.

Related Entries:

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The Other Movie Oscars: The 2000s
Some Other Movies From 2001
Some Other Movies From 2003

*The Flash and Aquaman 2 are also on the DCEU Wikipedia page, but I feel the future of these movies is far less certain.  Note also the question mark after the New Mutants' release date.  At this point, who knows?