A Bulleted List of Reasons We Turned Off Aquaman

When it comes to writing thirty-one movie reviews in a row, not every review written can be a winner and neither are all the movies we watch. Sometimes you have your father coming over for his birthday the next day and you just want to have something on while you bake a cheesecake. Sometimes that thing is an action movie you missed a few years ago which everyone said was okay. Sometimes those movies are not okay, despite what people say.

This is some time.

Tonight, we turned on Aquaman and turned off Aquaman. Here’s why in as many bullets as I need to get through the word salad in my head:

  • It sucked.

  • That’s unfair: it was pretty, the two leads were attractive, and it had a decent big screen interpretation of Atlantis whenever we spent time there.

  • We did not spend time in Atlantis.

  • We did spend time on the origin of Black Manta, a black man playing a villain with the words “black man” in his title. That’s not the movie’s fault, but I am considering adding a villain to my next D&D campaign named White Manticore who comedically pauses between the “man-” and the “-ticore”.

  • The punchline in that bullet was the word “comedically” because that joke wasn’t funny.

  • Seriously though, the movie lacked an anchor and seemed to be fishing for a plot.

  • We are supposed to care about not one but two McGuffins: the title of Ocean Man and the Trident of Atlan. Both are vaguely defined.

  • You can correct me and say the title is actually Ocean Master, but I know you don’t want to out yourself as someone who cares that much.

  • We do get some mom issues to work through and some hubbub over rightful heirs and what not, but the movie made me care about its government situation like Khal Drogo cared about the rightful king of Westeros.

  • It was cheesy and the tone was all over the place. We go from watching humanoid minions suffocate to one of them sticking their head in a toilet? Black Manta mutters a bunch of one-liners that belonged, at best, in an episode of Power Rangers? It was just … just no.

  • I am out of effort.

Aqu-nah, man.

Ex Machina (2014)

“Ex Machina” was the perfect follow-up to watching “2001: A Space Odyssey”. In many ways, the films are similar. The dialogue and exposition are limited. There’s a constant flow toward something – a building tension – but you are not sure what. Both also talk about artificial intelligence and related concepts. And, for us, “Ex Machina” was the better movie despite not being as visionary as “2001”.

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The movie only features four characters. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, the CEO of a fictionalized version of Google who has retreated to a paradise stronghold to use the power of search engine data to fuel the creation of an artificial intelligence that can pass as human. Domhnall Gleeson is Caleb, a programmer at Nathan’s company who “wins” a contest to spend a week with the boss. Alicia Vikander plays Ava, the artificial intelligence. Finally, Sonoyo Mizuno, in a non-speaking role, plays Kyoko, Nathan’s A.I. servant.

My biggest takeaway from watching “Ex Machina” was how refreshing it felt to get “back to basics”. In “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the A.I. HAL managed to win me over by singing as his brains were being literally pulled out. Here, Ava isn’t a fresh idea brought to the big screen for the first time. Over the last decade, we have seen a ton of media focused on artificial intelligence gone awry. For instance, a show like HBO’s Westworld that featured A.I. raising hell and fucking there way through it. In “Ex Machina”, we hit the reset button as we, the audience, and Caleb, our stand-in, meet Ava and are challenged to question her humanity, self-awareness, and agency.

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Despite feeling less than fresh, it is this clean install that makes “Ex Machina” interesting. In challenging its lead to participate in a Turing test, it also challenges the audience to consider Ava as well. Rather than jump to sex and violence, “Ex Machina” is slow and intentional in a way that makes its heady concepts easier to swallow.

It doesn’t hurt that Oscar Isaac gives a marvelous performance as the asshole Nathan. It is hard not to hate and mistrust him from the first moment he is on the screen until the last. Throughout the film, he uses Caleb, but it is in his duplicity that the audience is challenged. Whether Ava has free will or not, whether she cares for Caleb or not, whether Nathan is a red herring or not. These are all the things that keep “Ex Machina” interesting. Nathan, and loathing him, is a distraction that makes everything else work.

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That’s not to say that “Ex Machina” is a revelatory experience. It is less exciting simply because its a common trope these days, even if it is well-executed. Telling a great story about A.I. in the 2010’s differs little from telling a great story about zombies 15 years ago at the height of its craze: everyone is doing it, so it’s harder to stand out.

I realize I liked “Ex Machina” more as a palette cleanser than something in its own right. It helped clear out the aftertaste of “2001” and some of the lingering flavors of the second season of Westworld (which was pretty bad). And that’s not a bad thing. Diane and I both enjoyed it.

Plus, after seeing Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis”, I will watch him in most anything once.

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WB Top 100: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.


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Like so many fans of film, I consider myself a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s work. Whereas many of the films on this list thus far have been described as varying degrees of “fun”, Kubrick’s movies are rarely anything of the sort. I have looked forward to rewatching his work and seeing his movies with fresher eyes or hearing what Diane has to say as she has only seen “The Shining”. Perhaps most of all, I had looked forward to seeing 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, a Kubrick film I always managed to miss. After seeing it though, it is now my least favorite example of his work.

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Some of you may recall that I enjoy reading science fiction novels. Though I have slowed dramatically in recent years, when I was a teenager, I swore I would read every Hugo Award winner for Best Novel. As such, Arthur C. Clarke (the film’s co-writer and the writer of the short story that inspired it) is not an unfamiliar name to me and I could feel his fingerprints, and the fingerprints of the sci-fi genre at the time, all over “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Married with Kubrick’s vision and imagery, it should’ve been a hit for me, but I felt even more adrift than any of the film’s many spaceships.

Since the film’s release, the only thing I knew about it was an astronaut named Dave who has to contend in some way with an artificial intelligence named HAL. Unfortunately, the peak of their conflict occurs in the back half of the film and encompasses all of about five minutes. For a film that wants to flirt with things beyond human comprehension, it spends its precious few lines of dialogue humanizing a malfunctioning AI, makes him a fixture of pop culture history forever, and instantly jets off to a literal kaleidoscope of psychedelic imagery that has not aged well.

It’s all a shame too because so much of “2001” is timeless in its execution despite being a reflection of a future of buttons and vending machines and stewardesses. The depiction of early man as yet-to-be evolved apes visited by a strange alien monolith and discovering how to make weapons was strange but a startling way to open. From there, we move to the best retro-future vision ever set to film (this is a positive: I love the future as mankind saw it in the 50’s and 60’s).

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In discussing the film afterward for this review, I realized “2001: A Space Odyssey” seemed to me to be a past generation’s “The Matrix” or even “Inception”. Kubrick threw out every script we have seen before on this list and gave us all a wholly unique vision. One of the best things about older movies is I get to say, “How the hell did they do that?” For the first two acts of “2001”, I never stopped asking that question.

Unfortunately, with so much of the philosophy of the film wrapped up in depicting, but not showing, extraterrestrials too incomprehensible to show, I am reminded only of the acid burnout stories that plague so many classic science fiction writers I have read. While neat in idea and likely revolutionary and inspirational for the time, “2001: A Space Odyssey” fell victim to smoking its own self-image, a hallucinogenic thing short on substance. To me, as technically amazing and truly brave as this film was, it felt more akin to something like “Cloud Atlas” with a lot to say and no real way of saying it that felt impactful.

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None of this is to say “2001: A Space Odyssey” is a bad film. It is not. It was revolutionary, but as necessary as revolutions are, I’d never ask to live in the middle of one. It would be unfair to say that I was not let down at least somewhat by what I perceived the film to be before seeing it. I expected a horror film, better than “The Shining”, about man versus machine. As I said before, that part of the film, as memorable and terrifying and tense as it was, was also too brief. The bulk of the film is spent on a soundscape both pretentious and genius, that conveys the uncaring nature of space, and fills the rest with equally uncaring humans pretending their way to an unknowable enlightenment for the benefit of no one.

Art at its best and its worse, “2001: A Space Odyssey” is an experience worth having once.

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For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

WB Top 100: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.


There’s something impossibly cool about Paul Newman. He oozes a quiet kind of masculinity born not from his bravado or might, but his charm and confidence. Likewise, his 1967 movie, “Cool Hand Luke” has ample charm and confidence. Unfortunately, unlike Newman, we thought the movie was much ado about not really anything.

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Newman plays Lucas Jackson, a new prisoner in a Florida chain gang. Despite being a decorated veteran of World War II, he ends up being arrested for cutting down parking meters while intoxicated. There appears to be no reason for this behavior.

The film plays out as he first joins the chain gang and follows some of his early trials and tribulations. Diane called it a “prison slice of life” movie and I do not disagree. 

Some scenes are funny. For instance, Luke says he can eat fifty eggs in an hour, to which the fellow prisoners make bets over. It is a wonderful scene that shows just how he manages to win over the affection of his fellow inmates. Along with an earlier fight where he refused to back down to Dragline, played by George Kennedy (who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the role), the prisoners revere “Cool Hand” Luke as a reverential figure. The egg eating scene even ends with a bloated Luke lying down on the table in a pose reminiscent of Christ on the cross.

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Other scenes, such as the car washing scene where a large-breasted woman washes a car for a very, very long time in the most provocative way possible are crass and a waste of time.

Maybe it’s a failure to communicate or maybe it’s a failure to understand, but neither of us “got” the fuss. The acting, cinematography, and soundtrack are all superb, but the movie either has nothing to say or doesn’t know how to say it. Another review I saw referred to Newman’s Luke as an “existential Jesus figure”. Sure, that’s probably true, but other than some clever allusions, the script doesn’t seem to say a whole lot about why I should care about “existential Jesus figures” or how stories about them ought to enrich or entertain me.

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And that’s a shame because beyond everything else being so right, I loved the atmosphere. I didn’t really understand the time period or that we were in Florida, but it felt like the South all the same. I could almost smell the heat, humidity, sweat, and cut grass – all things I heavily associate with the South (and hate).

If “Cool Hand Luke” is little more than a movie about standing up to authority figures, then I echo its premise in this review. To all the movie authorities out there, “Cool Hand Luke” is okay. Not bad, not great, but enough to pass the time.

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For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

Creed (2015)

I have had a soft spot for anything boxing related since watching the classic anime series Hajime no Ippo. Everything but the sport itself. While watching boxing is often a bore, media about boxing manages to make myths out of men and heroes out of those who are not. It’s the deeper dive into why someone would risk their lives for something as trivial as a sport that appeals to me most, along with the growth as a fighter (and hopefully person), while persevering immense pain and pressure, that entertains me most.

2015’s “Creed” has all of that. Pound-for-pound, I consider “Creed” one of the best sports dramas in recent memory. When I had the chance to watch it again with Diane (her first time seeing it), I did not hesitate.

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“Creed” stars Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson (Creed), the bastard son of Apollo Creed from the Rocky film franchise. Rocky himself (Sylvester Stallone) also returns. Tessa Thompson rounds out the main cast as Bianca, Adonis’s neighbor and eventual love interest.

The film does an amazing job of hitting the nostalgia highs of a sequel without getting bogged down by them. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” came out the same year and despite being a solid film, it was as much a retread as it was a sequel. “Creed” suffers none of that.

While Rocky plays a big part as Adonis’s coach and “Uncle”, this movie is entirely about the Creed family and Apollo Creed’s legacy as a boxer. 

You aren’t required to see every Rocky film to follow along. For the most part, everyone from those films is long gone save for Rocky himself. And, I must say, while Stallone may not be the best actor, he plays the older version of his most famous character perfectly. The entire time, it made me wish to see Stallone in more age and ability-appropriate roles rather than botox-and-blast action films that do nothing for his legacy.

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Of course, Stallone’s turn as Rocky the elder father figure would be nothing without Michael B. Jordan’s performance. He nails the brooding perfectly without it detracting from his character. He has a cocky edge, but it is consistently tempered by his softer side toward his adoptive mother, his girlfriend, and Rocky. It is an incredible feat to play such a physical role while still being able to ring every possible emotion out of the audience over the course of the movie.

The real star of the film is how it was shot. Directed by Ryan Coogler, “Creed” feels almost too true-to-life in its presentation. The fights, in comparison to “Rocky” at least, look completely real. They are also shot in a way that captures the action without excessive cuts or motion blur. The final fight, complete with cuts to cameras and shots they most likely use to film real boxing matches, make “Creed” feel as authentic as possible while not losing anything in the process.

Best of all, Coogler timed “Creed” perfectly. Scenes leading up to fights all build anticipation. You can hear the crowd noise slowly being piped in while the attention is focused on someone’s face (usually Creed’s). When the fight begins, the action is consistent. Unlike a lot of sports movies (and action films for that matter), I always felt engaged by the material and found it easy to follow along as things sped up.

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Every movie with Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson, or directed by Ryan Coogler has been pure gold for me. “Creed” was fun the first time I watched it and just as fun seeing it again. From the acting to the direction, this is an all-time great sports film and still a great drama otherwise. Diane loved it and I have yet to convince her of the greatness of Hajime no Ippo or boxing-in-media. I’ll keep trying, especially since movies like this one do all the arguing for me.

WB Top 100: The Dirty Dozen (1967)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.


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1967’s “The Dirty Dozen” balances the line between dark comedy, war film, and action thriller. It immediately became one of our top films in this set, recent or otherwise, and will likely have to contend with “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” when we do another summary review of the last 25 films in the set we watched (which is coming up soon).

“The Dirty Dozen” tells the story of an eponymous group of American soldiers and war criminals who are given a second chance with a suicide mission. The movie follows Lee Marvin as Maj. John Reisman, a maverick in his own right, who “volunteers” to train and lead the mission.

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The film does a fantastic job of balancing itself. Most action movies and war films tend to be nonstop and relentless. Instead, we have a slow and steady build as we get to know and eventually care about our band of twelve murderers and other criminals (including at least one rapist). In some respects, it plays very similar to sports movies like “The Mighty Ducks” or “The Replacements”: the characters come from all backgrounds and don’t like each other very much but learn to get along. The difference here are the stakes: if anyone talks about their secret mission to anyone else or tries to escape, then all of them will be sent back and their sentences (for many: hanging) will be carried out immediately.

It helps that the film is wonderfully performed. Lee Marvin’s Maj. Reisman is perfect casting. He has a quiet intensity and older look. He reminds me of older combat veterans I have met in my lifetime, perhaps because he actually served in World War II.

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The rest of the so-called Dirty Dozen are equally amazing. Standouts include John Cassavetes as Franko, the group’s lead dissenter who ends up rallying them together. Telly Savalas’s Maggot, a rapist and all-around horrible person. I remember Savalas from the Twilight Zone episode about living dolls. That man played creep almost too well.

An incredibly young Jim Brown, the NFL great, plays Robert T. Jefferson. It was only after the film, when Diane was reading up on it, that I learned this was the Jim Brown. I was surprised to learn that he had any kind of movie career. He was absolutely fantastic in his role. In terms of this list, he has the distinction of being the first African American character that wasn’t a slave or the help. Shame he had to be a war criminal, but at least his crimes are justified within the plot (he killed two white men that tried to castrate him, or something like that). They also pair him with Wladislaw, played by the perpetually disturbed looking Charles Bronson. His character too has a sympathetic backstory and is faced with racism from some of the other men, so it is an interesting pairing with a lot of chemistry.

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Finally, I’d hate to miss mentioning Donald Sutherland as Pinkley. It’s a minor part, especially for an actor still going, but neat seeing his younger self in a classic film. He lacked all of the intensity his older appearance has given him, though that could just be his acting. For all I know, he has always been an intense old man!

If there are any complaints to be had, it’s the deaths. Not that they happened, mind you, just that they were all performed terribly. Outside the lack of swearing, this film could’ve been shot in any decade since, but it’s the way characters die that ages it the most. From over-the-top screams to the always terrible “dies and falls forward through a window”, it’s a real mess and detracts when the deaths are most plentiful: the film’s incredibly tense final act.

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Of all the movies in this list thus far, “The Dirty Dozen” earns one of the rarest distinctions of being a film I would happily watch again. Diane and I both loved it. From start to finish, it was entertaining. Somehow, someway, this movie made us forget what these men were convicted of doing and wish they are all survive. The exception of course, Maggot, because fuck that guy!

If you haven’t seen it, see it. It is really just that simple.

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For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Spike Lee’s 2018 film “BlacKkKlansman” balances precariously on the edge of laughter and discomfort – though mostly the latter. It is a far harder movie to watch than its position on several top 10 lists for its humor might have indicated. Here, Spike Lee offers a speculative view of a factual occurrence framed with today’s tumultuous and turbulent political climate. In telling the true story of Ron Stallworth, we are given a mirror and forced to look at today through a not so far off past, and I can’t say what we see in the reflection is any prettier.

“BlacKkKlansman” tells the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a Colorado Springs police officer who infiltrated a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan as a black man with the assistance of a fellow white officer, Flip (played by Adam Driver). Spike Lee’s version differs from what actually occurred, as movies often do, but it’s definitely a history that deserves more attention.

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I must admit that I have not seen many of Spike Lee’s films. That’s an omission I have been wanting to fix since seeing his 1992 film “Malcolm X” which I found powerful enough to watch multiple times, recommend to friends, and even read the book on which it is based (Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X). I know I need to at least watch “Do the Right Thing”.

Avoiding the film’s message for just a moment, “BlacKkKlansman” is an excellent movie. Beyond my discomfort from seeing so many characters spouting outright racism, this was a funny movie when I felt allowed to laugh. John David Washington put in an excellent performance and I look forward to seeing him in more roles.

That said, there’s no reason to divorce “BlacKkKlansman” the movie from the message. The point of media is to say something and damn does this movie hurt. Growing up in the South, I am not that far removed from the attitudes of many of this film’s most racist and hateful characters. My dad tells stories of the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses in our hometown in Alabama. His own complicated relationship with Black America has been the subject of endless rumination for myself and many interesting conversations for the two of us. He is much less racist (assuming you sympathize with my belief that racism is a spectrum) than the relatives of close friends who publicly espouse their affiliation with white supremacy movements and the modern KKK. Regardless, even when invisible, the KKK has never been completely absent from my life.

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As such, Spike Lee hits hard and often in this movie. With excellent directing, performances, and a powerful story, the narrative pulls you in at first believing it to be a self-contained “other” timeline in a far gone past of barbarism where outright and blatant racism was the norm. The humor helps the needle break the skin before an injection of phrases and lines force the realization that this is not the past but the origin of the present. 

For example, David Duke has a prominent role in “BlacKkKlansman”. Played by the always harmless Topher Grace, Duke is not parodied or played up as a great villain. When his name is first introduced, its stated that he is looking to normalize the Klan’s hate by repackaging their message for a white America less accepting of outright violence. Instead of being the KKK Grand Wizard, he is their National Director. He seems harmless enough, but when Topher Grace starts shouting “America first” at a Klan meeting and we later get real life footage of David Duke pledging his support for the politics of Donald Trump, the chill of his one-day success cuts to the bone.

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My absolute favorite thing about “BlacKkKlansman” was the expert depiction of many contrasting beliefs. While the film is about Black America and the Ku Klux Klan, the characters are written in a nuanced way to never show any group as a monolith.

For instance:

  • Laura Harrier’s Patrice Dumas is the leader of the Black Student Union and she hates the police because it only takes one racist cop to kill a black person. 
  • Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer for the Colorado Springs Police Department, cares about the persecution of his people but doesn’t believe police are innately the enemy. 
  • Adam Driver’s Flip, who pretends to be Ron Stallworth when infiltrating the KKK face-to-face, is Jewish but doesn’t identify as such because he wasn’t raised that way. As such, though he hates the hate of the KKK, it’s difficult for him to feel as directly impacted. 
  • An additional subplot features a racist police officer who shot and killed a black kid but was never convicted. The other officers protect him because they are one of his, though the officer does eventually get his by those same characters.
  • There’s even a difference in how members of the KKK operate. David Duke and people like him function more like politicians and businessmen and hide their hate in their seeming normalcy. Other members of the Klan still cling to violence, murder, mayhem, and tyranny through those direct means. Though they remain together on the same roof, it’s a frequent source of conflict as murdering black people outright interferes with Duke’s new vision of the modern KKK.

In depicting these contrasts, “BlacKkKlansman” succeeds where so many meaningful movies fail. Rather than portray things as black and white, good and evil, or any other simple dichotomy, we are given a fuller picture more in line with reality. It is no comfort to know that not all KKK members want to murder black people and instead just want to send them “home”, but clinging to absolutes often forces a blind spot to the myriad of in betweens. In that blindness, we miss the fact that people sometimes hold conflicting opinions or that not all police officers are racists. That’s not an argument for accepting obvious hate groups or ignorant views that cause actual harm, but instead a call to understand that reality is far more complicated.

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As the film moves past its happy ending on to its true ending, the whole experience ends with a stiff punch to the gut and a call to action. Ending with Charlottesville, the last seconds of “BlacKkKlansman” should make any empathetic person tear up at the hatred and horror that still exists in our world. As they are referred to frequently in the film, the KKK as the “Invisible Empire” never went away and its philosophy of hate remains. Whether you feel Donald Trump’s presidency is a direct result of their machinations or not, his unpresidential behavior and support of hate has only rallied the worst of our society to believe now is their time. We must all stand for a unified vision of a world, not just a USA, where race, religion, and sexual orientation are no longer a cause for people to murder people. In standing, we must tear up hate at its root and cast it from the garden of our societies.

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The Dark Crystal (1982)

After all these years decades, Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal” from 1982 remains a marvel to behold. We watched it in 4K streaming (my second time and Diane’s first), and the practical effects have aged beautifully. We are both excited to see how the new Netflix series turns out and looking forward to more Dark Crystal soon.

“The Dark Crystal” takes place on a dying planet on the brink of either great calamity or rebirth. The evil Skeksis have reigned for 1,000 years by using the magic of the dark crystal to enslave others and artificially extend their own lives with stolen life essence. Our hero is Jen, the last of the Gelflings, who has been raised by the wise masters called the Mystics. When his master dies, he is sent on a journey to find the missing shard of the Dark Crystal.

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The plot is admittedly too simple. The film’s writers managed to pack in a ton of background lore, which is interesting, but the sheer number of clichés and other fantasy shorthand involved undercuts any of the story’s actual creativity. Though I imagine it took some inspiration from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (unlikely hero goes on a perilous journey to return an item of great power to the location where the great evil is at its strongest), hearing the same story told simpler after experiencing it so much better in the “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy makes “The Dark Crystal” appear far too derivative in comparison.

Thankfully, that is an altogether minor complaint since no one should watch this movie for the story. “The Dark Crystal” succeeds best at being a spectacle, and it is timeless in its execution. The world feels detailed, alive, alien, fantastic, and real all at once. The Muppets have never been more detailed or believable. The backgrounds, the fantasy scenery, and the realistic-but-fantastic fauna all equate to a movie that is essentially fantasy setting porn for even the most casual of fantasy fans.

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Best of all, the evil Skeksis are a marvel of storytelling done through performance and costume alone. Though the movie has little time to give backstories or names for each one, you get a real sense of each personality and their role from their costume imagery and behaviors alone. 

I doubt “The Death of Stalin” was paying any sort of homage to “The Dark Crystal”, but when the Skeksis ruler is on his deathbed and all are gathered around, obviously waiting to become his replacement, Diane remarked how similar it was to Stalin’s advisors gathered around him as he lay dying. Without having to say it, there’s a certain tyrannical autocratic element to the Skeksis that gives the impression that each is as cruel as the next, with different specializations, no different from advisors to any tyrant.

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Much of the movie is told through lengthy exposition, but when it comes to the Skeksis, Jim Henson and Co get the concept of “show don’t tell” perfect.

For me, “The Dark Crystal” is a perfect example of 80s fantasy and why it remains one of the most important decades for the fantasy genre, regardless of medium. The use of practical effects is perhaps the biggest reason, but there’s also a sense in the 80s fantasy films that story did not need to be dumbed down. As simple and, frankly, dull as “The Dark Crystal”’s plot was, the lore is complicated, it relies much on proper nouns for races of beings you’ve never heard of, and it assumes the viewer (no matter the age) will follow along. It also doesn’t pull any punches in the emotional aspects of storytelling when the romantic interest and the lovable dog stand-in nearly die. 

I absolutely love this about 80s movies and loved watching “The Dark Crystal” again. It’s a timeless, beautiful work of film art.

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Unicorn Store (2017)

Though playing minor roles, 2017’s “Unicorn Store” shares two actors in common with our last review for “Always Be My Maybe”. What better reason to follow that one up with this one?

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“Unicorn Store” is the directorial debut of Brie Larson (yes, Captain Marvel herself). She also stars as Kit, a 20-something who failed as an artist and moved back in with her parents to figure out what to do next with her life. Her parents, played by the always acceptable Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford, are youth counselors obsessed with eating kale.

Brie’s Kit is later joined by Samuel L. Jackson as The Salesman. After receiving a series of incredibly specific cards with her name on it, Kit finds herself at a place called The Store where she meets The Salesman who promises her a unicorn if she can fulfill the necessary requirements. As Dungeons & Dragons as it sounds, the financial disclosure agreements included in the many, many contracts she is forced to sign are by no means a fantasy.

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For all its humor, “Unicorn Store” takes itself just seriously enough to have heart. Kit is depressed after being rejected as an artist and ejected (she was attending an art school) from the art world altogether. As such, she struggles with her own self-worth and finding a place in the real world when she has spent most of her life in the fantasy world of her own art, and, as we learn, the fantasy world of having an imaginary unicorn friend named Steve.

To show up Kevin, a youth counselor she thinks her parents love more, Kit answers one of those horrible daytime television ads about temporary work, and soon finds herself out in the real world. Not to assume everything Brie Larson does has to have a feminist twist, but Kit’s plight as a temp read to me as a commentary on the difficulty of being a woman in the modern age: 

  • She is treated as an “other” by female coworkers who immediately dislike her for the preference she gets from the company’s vice president, Gary (Hamish Linklater). 
  • Gary gets as close to making this a story about sexual harassment in the workplace as he can without that subplot ever becoming the film’s focus.
  • Her idea for an ad campaign for a vacuum cleaner is rejected by an all-male room.
  • The competing ad campaign is literally just a picture of a sexy woman using a vacuum.
  • The woman whose company wants the ad campaign dismisses her ideas as being childish before turning to Gary for validation of her opinion.

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“Unicorn Store” has plenty of humor and heart to be worth a watch, but the messaging and commentary really make it interesting to me, a fellow millennial, forced to contend with the evil baby boomers and their harshing of our vibes. That last line is a bit of a joke, but this is a movie for those of us who have to grow up later in life by growing into ourselves and finding a place to grow safely in the cruel world of work and adulthood and bills and taxes and responsibilities.

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Kit sees herself as an artist and sees herself as someone who can add something unique to the world-at-large. Being rejected on both ends, both artistic and corporate, ends up not mattering because in her pursuit of a unicorn, she finds people who appreciate and respect her as she is and learns that everyone needs a little fantasy to escape the bullshit of their lives. She’s not unique in that, as a millennial or otherwise, because we all know life sucks.

But with a little glitter, and the hope of getting a unicorn, the suck is less.

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(Also, this is well-directed and well-acted. Brie is a much more interesting actress when she can emote, which is my biggest complaint about her role as Captain Marvel thus far. That said, I know how triggering [legitimately-so] it can be to say I wish she smiled more, so I won’t!)

Always Be My Maybe (2019)

One of the best things about dedicating yourself to watching a lot of movies is the exposure to genres you might otherwise avoid. For me, that has mostly been romantic films. It’s not that I lack an appreciation for movies about love, but too often they come off as cliche, boring, or, worse, irreflective of reality. The exception (at least for me) is the romantic comedy which I know from the outset I never have to take seriously and I can kick back to enjoy the humor. It’s not that romantic comedies don’t have the same flaws as romantic movies – they do – but that change in expectation makes those flaws, more or less, ignorable.

I am happy to report that the 2019 Netflix romantic comedy, “Always Be My Maybe” is a fun movie to watch assuming you expect to ignore all of the flaws and foibles of most romantic comedies.

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Starring Randall Park (I love him) as Marcus and Ali Wong as Sasha, the two were best friends in childhood before teenage hormones and the lack of honest communication that comes with them pushed them apart. Years later, we are reintroduced to their adult versions as Sasha, now a celebrity chef, and Marcus, who still lives at home, meet again. Will they get over their baggage? Are they still in love after all this time? Will they overcome their own personal flaws to be the person each knows they can be?

“Always Be My Maybe” is a by-the-numbers romantic comedy, but it rarely feels like it. The performances, the writing, and the characters, all manage to elevate the form just enough to make this a really fun film. Much of the story reflects on both Sasha and Marcus’s experiences as young Asian-Americans, and I am sure those experiences are taken directly from the writers, both Park and Wong themselves (as well as Michael Golamco, another Asian-American). As such, the film has an authenticity and realness that I found fascinating and Diane found relatable.

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As a romantic comedy, the film does a good job of avoiding some of the more toxic pitfalls of the genre. Marcus still living at home comes off as genuine. He lost his mother as a teenager, and he feels the need to stay with his dad who always wants to give his son enough space to leave when he feels it necessary. Marcus isn’t a loser or unsuccessful at life. His decision to stay, while an obvious inability to live up to his true potential, is depicted as mostly a valid choice. It’s only when he uses that choice as an excuse not to branch out that the story starts depicting it otherwise.

Similarly, with Sasha, from the beginning of the movie, she is depicted as having to live on her own and take care of herself. Her love of cooking comes from time spent with Marcus’s family who lived next door (specifically his mom who teaches her the secrets of Korean food, like using scissors). The movie very easily could have painted Sasha’s parents as wanting to take advantage of her fame and fortune, but it never goes there either. Instead, we get a minor side plot where they admit they were not there enough for their daughter and want to find ways of mending their relationship. It’s incredibly wholesome.

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Speaking of wholesome, it would be impossible to ignore “Always Be My Maybe”’s cameo, especially after our review of the mostly wholesome “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”. Keanu Reeves makes an appearance as Sasha’s love interest and every scene with him is absolutely fantastic. I will not spoil more than that.

Beyond Ali Wong and Randall Park, I want to give a nod to James Saito as Marcus’s dad, Harry. I have no idea who this character is based on, but I found him to be one of the most charming and sincere characters in the entire film. Saito captures the character perfectly. When Diane mentioned he was Shredder in the first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie, I was taken aback that someone so charming and caring also played a character that haunted me as a child.

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“Always Be My Maybe” does little to move the romantic comedy forward. It still is an important film. In a genre plagued with cliche and so often written to appeal broadly to a mostly white America, it’s good to see a film more reflective of modern day America that doesn’t dwell overlong on issues of race (and doesn’t ignore them either). This is the kind of United States I want to live in: one where our cultural histories and backgrounds inform who we are but never impede who we can be. In making something so familiar feel so fresh with a new perspective, Park and Wong have made a movie that would feel good to watch at any time with anyone.

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