Tag Archives: movies

Movies: Knives Out

Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Screenplay by: Rian Johnson
Lionsgate, 2019
PG-13; 130 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)

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This being movie #1 of 2020. (I’m hoping to keep count.)

I have long been a fan of cozy mysteries in the Agatha Christie vein. So of course when I saw the trailers for this one, I had to see it. No one makes movies like this anymore; more often this kind of content goes to the stage, if it gets produced at all. (Certainly, there are still many mystery books published.) Anyway, after being disappointed by J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars, it seemed fitting in a way to go enjoy something by Rian Johnson. (Yes, I did like Last Jedi.)

Knives Out is a fun take on the genre. The viewers are fed the building blocks of the crime early on, and a fair part of the film is about watching the murderer attempt to elude Daniel Craig’s Southern-gentleman detective. But of course there is the standard twist. I saw it coming—I would guess many mystery readers will put it all together fairly swiftly—but that didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the film for me. There is a lot of humor and a lot of charm on show here.

Being from the South myself, I had many friends warn me that Craig’s Southern accent was terrible. Maybe they oversold it because it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Overwrought, sure, but I suspect some of that is on purpose as much of the film is somewhat exaggerated, as is common in the genre. Can I also just mention how glad I am to see Don Johnson getting work these days? Between this and Watchmen, he’s suddenly everywhere, and in great form. My guess is that casting agents are capitalizing on us 80s’ kids’ nostalgia by bringing back actors from our childhoods. Well, huzzah! Makes me plenty happy. (I was actually a bit too young for Miami Vice, but my parents were weirdly permissive in letting me watch it with them. I probably didn’t understand half of what I saw and heard.)

Anyway, without giving too much away, Knives Out is about the abrupt death of a famous mystery novelist, and the swarm of his greedy family. The death is at first ruled a suicide, but then a detective (Craig) is anonymously hired to look into it. Things are complicated by the fact that the writer left all his money to his personal nurse (de Armas, managing incredibly well considering she’s on screen for almost the entire movie). Suspense tempered by humor ensues.

In all, I do recommend this one for fans of a fun murder mystery. It’s a bit too easy to figure out (which is why I shaved a wee bit off the rating), but it’s a good time anyway.

Movies: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Screenplay by: Rian Johnson
Lionsgate, 2019
PG-13; 130 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)

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There will be spoilers. I usually try to avoid them, but I don’t think there’s any way to talk about this movie without spoiling some of it, so if you don’t want to know anything prior to viewing, read this after you’ve seen the film.

Imagine there was an address that only two or three GPS systems in the world knew how to get to. Yeah, that’s what this movie starts out being about. Of course, that’s just the McGuffin. Basically, it becomes clear that Emperor Palpatine is still alive and hiding on a planet that only a few of these Sith WayfindersTM can locate. So Rey, Poe, and Finn must go find one so they can find Palpatine and, er, end him, I guess. Before he can raise a new, Final Order and become emperor of the known universe.

Palpatine, meanwhile, has sent Kylo Ren to find and kill Rey because she’s so powerful, etc. etc.

On paper it… seems to work? But then things begin to muddy as Abrams attempts to retcon the things Rian Johnson did in Last Jedi that he would have done differently. Rey’s parentage is finally revealed to be not “nobody.” And Luke (as a Force ghost) chides Rey for nearly throwing away her lightsaber, saying, “A Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect,” which seems to be a direct rebuke to Johnson having Luke toss said weapon over his shoulder in the last film. Yeah, okay, but the lack of consistency between the last film and this one leaves a viewer’s head spinning. Luke behaves one way in one film and completely differently in the next. Rey is a nobody and then she’s not. Instead of going with the flow, Episodes VII-IX feel like the tug-of-war Kylo and Rey engage in when fighting over a transport ship.

What it says, really, is that one person and one vision should have been in charge throughout. Lucas’ singular vision in Episodes IV-VI meant they were at the very least consistent in tone, if sometimes contrary in small ways. Barring being able to have the same person at the helm for each film, each subsequent writer/director should have taken the baton and run, ideally toward the same finish line, rather than hieing off in random directions.

I didn’t dislike this movie. At least, I don’t think I did? There is no star rating because I’m still trying to suss everything I’ve seen and how I really feel. There were a number of moving moments that gave me chills and just as many that felt nonsensical to me. There is a lot of fan service, some of which I enjoyed and some of which felt shoehorned in to me. But movies—and especially something as big as Star Wars, something that has spanned multiple generations and has avid, ravenous fans—are so subjective. The things I liked will be things others hate, and the things that bothered me will be things others have no problem with. From “who shot first” to now, there will always be debate and dissension.

I will probably need to see the movie one or two more times to figure out whether I actually like it. I loved The Force Awakens from the start and still do. I had mixed feelings about Last Jedi but came to enjoy it more after multiple viewings (though a few of my reservations remain). This one? I really don’t know whether I’ll come to like it more or less over time. Or if it will always be that I like some of it, but not all of it, not nearly. My niggles about Last Jedi felt small compared to my divergent feelings here, so I can’t really foresee how my heart will eventually settle.

I was only a year old when Episode IV came out. It wasn’t until much later that I used to watch Empire Strikes Back on the VCR… a lot. And sometimes Return of the Jedi, though not as often. My best friend, however, was hugely into Star Wars. She and her mother both loved Rise of Skywalker, so maybe I’m just not a big enough fan to embrace everything that’s going on in this film? Then again, I hesitate to compare fans and suggest that some are “truer” than others. There is no wrong or right way to enjoy something, is there?

And if you don’t fully enjoy something, are you less of a fan? I don’t think so. I think discernment, and thoughtfulness, are not bad things. This isn’t a “with me or against me” situation. If you don’t love something 100% that doesn’t make you a “hater.” As the Force shows, there is light and dark in everyone; it’s how you wield it that matters.

I may, after one or two more viewings, or even after some more thought and discussion, revisit this review. I may even be able to decide on a star rating. Until then… may the Force be with you, and with us all.


Fan fiction note: How many people are going to write a story in which Ben impregnates Rey with that last little bit of life force? Like, an extra life in there maybe? For all we know that’s how Anakin happened…

Movies: Jumanji: The Next Level

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Awkwafina
Directed by: Jake Kasdan
Screenplay by: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner & Scott Rosenberg from the book by Chris Van Allsburg
Sony 2019
PG-13; 123 minutes
4.5 stars (out of 5)

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As far as entertainment goes, this one is entertaining. What more could anyone want really? Except to have an excuse to look at Dwayne Johnson for a couple hours? (Or Karen Gillan if that’s more your thing.)

The story this time around begins as our friends from the previous film, now all off in college, are planning to meet back home for the holiday break. Except Spencer is reluctant. He and Martha are on a “break” and he’s feeling like a loser compared to… her Instagram feed, I guess? Wanting the confidence he felt when being Bravestone in the Jumanji game, Spencer makes the questionable decision to go back in. (Because he apparently went and took the console from the school and secreted it in his basement.)

Of course, the game is broken, so… when his friends go looking for him, it grabs Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s friend Milo (Danny Glover). The humor then becomes derived from trying to a. find Spencer in the game and b. get two old men through a video game.

I suppose the true fun in watching these movies is watch actors trying to act against type by pretending to be very different personalities. Sometimes it gets a little too close to impersonation (Johnson’s DeVito has some sketchy moments), but overall the entertainment value is consistently present.

While I still enjoyed the first one more, I think that’s surely because it was so surprisingly delightful. Once expectations are set, it’s always more difficult to meet them. I also found the premise for this one—that is, Spencer’s reason for wanting to go back into the game—flimsy at best. Although in the first few minutes of the film we do see that he’s having a hard time in general (lame job, mean boss, it rains on him and his suitcase handle breaks)… The movie fails to earn its catalyst. It’s actually the friendship between Eddie and Milo that begets touching moments, and those are totally merited.

Overall, another fun installment that leaves the door wide open for more to come.

Movies: X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Ugh. Why did I even?

Where to begin? The terrible script? That’s where most movies begin, but this one had so many reshoots that who knows what the original script even looked like? What remains, however, is just awful. It’s rote. Predictable. The two main plots don’t mesh, even though they are supposed to actually be part of the same story. The villains have zero character development. None of the actors appear to want to be there at all. (Probably because of reshoots.)… Just… ugh.

The story: Jean Grey gets sent to Xavier’s school after losing her parents in a car accident (that it seems she probably caused thanks to being incapable of controlling her powers). Years later, she and some of the other X-students go save a shuttle flight in distress and Jean gets hammered by weird space radiation or something, which enhances her powers. Once again she struggles to control them. Then [spoilers follow] she finds out Xavier lied about her father being dead and implanted false memories so she wouldn’t know she wasn’t wanted. She goes to see her dad, she fights with some of her classmates, she goes to see Magneto, he sends her away… Basically, her chaos is threatening the fragile acceptance the mutants have received from the government and the world at large. Soon they’re being put in containment camps, etc.

Meanwhile, some aliens who really like that radiation or nebula or whatever has taken up residence inside Jean are following her and trying to convince her to… join them? Here’s the chief problem with this side of the plot: despite the main alien lady (played by Jessica Chastain) being a walking exposition bot, we really are given nothing about these aliens and what they’re really after. The whole point of them is to be the difficult decision Jean needs to make about whether to use her powers for good or ill.

What’s really a bummer is that this could have been a good movie. If the actors had appeared at all invested, if the characters had been developed, and especially if the themes had been more than skimmed over. There’s potential here to explore things like internment camps, and the question of when lies are less harmful than the truth, and misuse of power, and difficult choices. But nothing in this movie is more than surface and show. And it’s not particularly good show, so it can’t quite skate by on just that.

I remember X-Men: The Last Stand being pretty awful, too. So maybe it’s time to stop trying to tell this story on screen. Or, more broadly, maybe it’s time to invest more in character and personal conflict rather than constantly relying on bland spectacle.

Movies: All Things Must Pass

This is a documentary about Tower Records. Are you old enough to know what Tower Records was (and still is in Japan)? I didn’t really know what it was until I went to college at UT Austin; there was a big Tower Records on “The Drag.”

The documentary does a good job of organizing the information. It talks to all the key players, including the late Russ Solomon, founder of Tower. Former employees sing the praises of the Tower Records “lifestyle.” The film takes us through the expansion… And then kind of rushes the collapse. It hesitates to criticize Solomon, instead blaming digital media and someone they hired to help them who apparently made decisions they say tanked the company. Former employees talk about having to be laid off from their 30+ year careers… tears in their eyes… and yet they still consider Russ Solomon to be (present tense, since Solomon was alive at the time of filming) some kind of godlike king. Which is just kind of weird to me? Almost cultish? Or maybe they’re just reliving their glory days, what they consider to be the best days of their lives?

Look, I had a job at a small family-owned shop when I was in college. (In fact, it was on The Drag.) And it was the best job I’ve ever had and am ever likely to have. Yes, even as a writer, I can say that. Because going to that job every day was like going to hang out with friends and family. The work was incidental. I never had a dread of going to work. I never thought, I wish I didn’t have to. I looked forward to it! So I can totally understand where these Tower Records folks are coming from.

But though the employees were hurt by Tower’s fate, Solomon wasn’t much. He still had stores in Japan, was still making money. And this is more or less skated over by the film.

I just… I had mixed feelings about this film. It’s really designed to praise Russ Solomon and Tower Records and say very little contrary to, “Wasn’t it great?” It’s a lot of nostalgia but not much else. It’s really well made, but the content is flimsy.

On Decoding

Monty Python had a skit in which Graham Chapman was a guest on a talk show, and when he was introduced as “Raymond Luxury Yacht,” Chapman gently corrected, “It’s spelt ‘Luxury Yacht’ but it’s pronounced ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove’.” It’s a funny punchline not only because the names are so ridiculous but because it’s seemingly out of nowhere; who reads ‘Luxury Yacht’ as ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove’? Those letters don’t make those sounds, not even in a liberal interpretation. Right?

I promise I’m not changing subjects when I mention that, in getting a degree in cultural media studies, we talked a lot about encoding and decoding texts (“texts” being our word for any film or television, whether a scene, an episode, or an entire series). It’s simple, if narrow-minded, to say there’s only one correct way to interpret something. It’s facile, however, to say there’s no wrong way to do so. You can’t [reasonably] look at ‘Luxury Yacht’ and decide it really means ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove.’

Almost anyone who went to school has a story of a lit teacher who had very fixed ideas about the symbolism or imagery in a book or poem. Something they’d been taught, or something they especially felt invested in for whatever reason… Maybe they’d read a biography of the author and had drawn a conclusion based on information about the writer’s life. Whatever. Film and television fans can be just as aggressively rigid about how they see and interpret what they watch. And the more they love a show or movie, the more they dig in. At least in my experience. If and when another viewer, or even a writer or actor or producer on the show or movie, contradicts them, these fans double down. They insist that their reading of the text is valid. (Sometimes they insist that theirs is the only valid interpretation.)

The wonderful thing about books and films and television programs is that they are open to a variety of insights, and once they leave the authors’ hands, the writers (and actors, and directors, and producers) no longer truly own them. What’s encoded is one thing, but what’s decoded is truly personal and therefore necessarily biased. This is why fans fight so hard—because validation of their reading is a kind of validation of self.

BUT. As with Luxury Yacht vs. Throatwobbler Mangrove, not all interpretations are reasonable. In this day and age, when people readily consider their personal opinions to be as valid as hard facts, this statement can be difficult to swallow. Yes, you are allowed to see whatever patterns you like in the wallpaper, but sometimes the patterns really aren’t there, no matter how much you insist they are. You’re desperate for the wallpaper to be yellow stripes—you love yellow stripes—but if it’s pink flowers… Trying to convince others it’s really yellow stripes is a waste of time and energy. You’re only going to end up frustrated and angry because you’re trying to turn what’s there into something that it isn’t.

This is, one supposes, where the joy of fan fiction comes in. When writing fanfic, one can change the wallpaper and make it whatever one wants it to be because there really are no rules. If you want to pronounce Luxury Yacht as Throatwobbler Mangrove, in fanfic you can. You might even find other fans who will nod and say, “That’s a neat way to read it.”

As for the primary text, the source text, whatever you want to call it… There are rules. They’re pretty flexible, but they do have limits. In sketch comedy, you can turn Luxury Yacht into Throatwobbler Mangrove. But if you were watching an actual news program and someone said that? It wouldn’t fly.

Movies: Hereditary

I don’t particularly like horror movies; I have a very low tolerance for gore. But I’d heard this one was good and not too bloody, so…

It still had some pretty gross moments, let me tell you. But it was interesting, and fairly intense if you like that kind of thing.

Toni Collette plays Annie, whose mother has passed away. Then her daughter also dies in an accident. As Annie grapples with these tragedies, she meets a woman named Joan (Ann Dowd, somewhat typecast) in her grief group. Joan shows Annie how to contact the dead, and things go from there.

Annie is also an artist who creates disturbing dioramas. The movie hints at her mother having been crazy, and so maybe Annie has inherited (get it?) whatever genetic disposition made her mother a nutjob.

Then the question becomes how much of what is happening is actually supernatural, and how much of it is Annie.

Which would have been great if the movie had left it there. But it insists on going a bit further and answering these questions. And while I can appreciate the final result, I think a bit more ambiguity would have actually made the whole thing more compelling.

As it was, however… Yeah. Pretty damn creepy.

Movies: Spider-Man: Far From Home

Starring: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya
Directed by: Jon Watts
Screenplay by: Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers
Sony/Marvel, 2019
PG-13; 129 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)

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I’ve mentioned many times that I suffer from superhero movie fatigue. I’m at the point where I’m not really sure why I’m still going to these movies, except that my family loves them… And then I start to think I’ll somehow miss out if I don’t go too. Truth is, some of them are pretty good. And of all of them, I think I enjoy the Spider-Man ones the most.

In this movie, Peter Parker (Holland) just wants to enjoy his school trip to Europe. He’s hoping to use the science trip as a backdrop for a declaration of love to MJ (Zendaya). All that gets screwed up when Nick Fury turns up and needs an assist with some “Elementals” that have been attacking various places across the globe.

It’s a deceptively simple setup, which is probably why it works so well. So many of these films are convoluted to the point of ridiculousness. And in this one, the after-credit sequences almost trip over that line as well. Ugh. Can’t they leave well enough alone? But no, everything needs to be a little tweak, something to launch the next movie(s). It’s one of the reasons I’ve come to dislike this series of films.

But overall, this is a fun movie. A popcorn flick, as we used to call them. I know so many people who invest real time and effort into analyzing and deconstructing and whatever with these, and hey, whatever makes you happy. That’s the point of entertainment, after all. Get as involved (or not) as you like. For me, comic book movies are more like watch, enjoy, and then pretty much forget them… until I’m told I need to remember a million things for the next installment. Again, ugh. These movies should not be so much work.

Well, whatever. I had fun.

Movies: Always Be My Maybe

On the one hand, I have to give Netflix credit for reviving the romantic comedy. Studios don’t seem interested in them these days, and yes, I understand all the reasons why, but there are still people in the world who enjoy these kinds of movies. (I co-wrote one that was briefly optioned, and I wish Netflix would pick it up, too. But that’s beside the point.)

On the other hand, there are those reasons romantic comedies have withered. Namely that they are often rote and predictable. Which is more or less how I felt about this one.

The conceit: Sasha and Marcus have known each other since childhood. Sasha’s parents were never around, so she spent a lot of time at Marcus’s house, to the point that his mother Judy taught her to cook. But after an awkward night at age eighteen, in which Sasha and Marcus have clumsy sex in his car, they fight and go their separate ways. Sasha becomes a celebrity chef/restauranteur. Marcus works with his dad while harboring dreams of his band becoming more than local.

Then a bunch of pretty typical things happen. Some of it is cute, and some downright funny (like Sasha dating Keanu Reeves and… well, I won’t spoil it for you), but none of it really sparked me. I did tear up a tiny bit at the very end, but other than that…

Don’t get me wrong, this is a perfectly nice little movie. I’m not damning with faint praise; I realize that not every movie is for every person, and this one isn’t 100% for me. I’d say it’s 70-80%. That’s still a passing grade, and I know plenty of people who like this movie more than I did. So if you like rom-coms, try it for yourself.

Movies: Isn’t It Romantic

So… this is a thing. A rom-com that pretends to be something more or better by making fun of its very genre. I’m not saying it’s a bad movie, not at all. But it’s not the superior piece it makes itself out to be, either.

Rebel Wilson, probably best known for the Pitch Perfect movies, plays Natalie, an architect often taken advantage of by her officemates. One such coworker is Josh, played by Pitch Perfect fellow Adam Devine. I suppose someone saw those movies and felt like they needed more of those two. (Not entirely untrue, though the third Pitch Perfect movie leaned way too hard on Wilson for a story that just didn’t work.)

When Natalie is mugged in the subway, her concussion results in her entering a romantic comedy world that hangs a lampshade on every trope, even as it utilizes said tropes. Natalie’s perfect life, perfect apartment, perfect gay best friend/neighbor (Brandon Scott Jones), and perfect love interest (Liam Hemsworth)… etc. etc. It’s cute but predictable fare with nothing explored in any true depth, though the movie seems to think it’s making a statement. Loving yourself, not needing a man to complete you, and so on.

I will say that I enjoy a good rom-com and so I’m glad someone will still make them now and then. (Co-wrote one that got optioned then didn’t go anywhere, so if you’re a producer looking for some content…) This one is pretty typical for its genre, despite its protestations otherwise. It’s cute, but the plot never drills very deep. If it had, this would have been far more interesting. As it stands, it’s fine, but nothing special.