Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets is not a movie for everybody. No movie is, but reactions to Luc Besson’s latest science fiction adventure seem to be especially divided.  It does just so happen to be a movie for me.  I loved every insane second of this glorious mess.

The complaints about this, upon reflection, are valid.  The two leads aren’t great.  I think Cara Delevingne does a pretty good job as Laureline, though she is given too little to do.  Dane Dehaan seems completely miscast as Valerian, who from his dialogue appears to be intended to be a seasoned soldier and adventurer while Dehaan looks like a teenager even though he is more than 30.  It seems slightly incongruous, and the awkward dialogue doesn’t help.  The dialogue feels like direct translations of lines written in another language.  Knowing that the movie is an adaptation of a French comic from a screenplay written by its French director leads me to believe that this is the case.  That is no excuse for a movie to sound awkward and stilted in the language all the characters are speaking.  Honestly, it rarely bothered me. Aside from some awkward phrasing, it mostly just added to the otherworldliness of it all.

There are also complaints about the plot, which fills some gaps with cliche and leaves a few other holes open, but it is mostly a straight line mystery that doesn’t do enough to disguise its obvious twists. It isn’t bad so much as episodic, with one set piece leading to another set piece, but not having those connect all that well.

I’ve laid out a pretty good explanation, I think, for why some people didn’t like this movie. Not a one of them bothered me while I was on this rollercoaster.  It starts with a mostly silent scene where a space station becomes a place for the meetings of different cultures, from various Earth based societies to eventually humans meeting alien lifeforms.  Each one builds its own addition to the space station, until it is big enough to disrupt Earth and is shot across the galaxy to find a new home.  It then cuts to an alien world, where we a given a brief look at the life of an alien society for tragedy strikes their planet.  Both of these sequences are wonderful. One is mostly just people shaking hands, but it lays across what is meant by the title so quickly and cleanly.  The other is its own mini-tragedy that is crushing yet visually amazing.

Then we finally get to our protagonists, and some leaden banter, before they go on another visually amazing adventure into another dimensional marketplace to retrieve stolen government property.  This movie runs more than 2 hours, and throughout its runtime it doesn’t go more than 15 minutes without introducing some crazy new thing.  Once they reach Alpha, the space station, Valerian and Laureline jump from section to section so fast it is hard to catch your breath.  The mystery unfolds, but it is pretty obvious who the the villain is from the moment he appears.  The only question is can our two heroes figure things out in time to prevent an inevitable tragedy.  Once the action was rolling, Dehaan’s youthful looks were not a distraction and he and Delevingne proved to be solid real elements to meet the nonsense that the movie threw at them.

There is such a sense of fun here that I was enthralled.  I wanted to see what new madness each segment of this movie could show me. It wasn’t all new, but it was all spectacular.  While it shares a lot in common with Besson’s own The Fifth Element, I also saw shades of John Carter and Flash Gordon.  Not all viewers will take those comparisons as positive things, but I think John Carter is one of the most underrated movies of the last decade and rank Flash Gordon was one of my personal favorite films.  To say that this movie reminded me of them is high praise.  This is almost exactly the kind of movie I want for Summer popcorn fare.  I loved every nonsensical second of it.

****1/2

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Ever Oasis

Ever Oasis, the new 3DS action RPG from Grezzo and Nintendo, is a perfect summer game. It is breezy and bright and cheery. It is great for pulling out to play for twenty or thirty minutes before putting it away for the day or even the week. That makes it sound kind of slight and forgettable, but it is really just perfectly bite sized. It is a rather simple game, but that mostly works in its favor, with the games charm resting in its simplicity.

I previously compared it to Dark Cloud 2 and that comparison fits in the broad strokes. They are both action rpgs with some light dungeon puzzles and city building sim elements. But Dark Cloud is a big, meaty, complex game. It has giant dungeons to explore, several deep character building systems and involved town building sections. It does a lot of thing and does them well. While the game never really clicked for me, I am never surprised when someone tells me that it is a favorite. Ever Oasis offers a lot of the same things, but in this game they are simplified to be almost immediately graspable. There is some weapon building, but it is almost entirely linear. You use weaker weapons to forge stronger weapons, there is nothing like the complex weapons trees of Dark Cloud 2. The dungeons are compact, with easily understandable puzzles and most use the same few tools over and over. And the town building is as simple as placing buildings in a line. I could see some people craving more depth than Ever Oasis has to offer, but it gave me a taste of things I love in games without ever overwhelming me.

I don’t know that Dark Cloud was actually that much of an influence here. The same is true of the other PS2 RPG that it brought to mind, Radiata Stories. Ever Oasis feels like those games, but I can see stronger DNA from The Legend of Zelda, Grezzo previously remade the N64 games for the 3DS, and Secret of Mana, whose creator worked on this as well. It really feels like a synthesis of those two games, with some light town building thrown on top.

As breezy and charming as I found the game, there are parts that don’t work. The biggest problem is that the puzzle solving skills are tied to specific villagers in your oasis. Since you always have the protagonists in your 3 person party, you better hope you don’t encounter more than two types of puzzles that you need to solve. Yes, you can warp back to the oasis with the press of a button, but that takes time away from exploring. Also, some of the town business can grow tedious having to do it every day, despite how much can be automated.

For the most part, though, the game’s charms shine through. It is helped along by bright, cheery graphics and some solid music. It is just fun to be in the world of this game. The actually fighting and exploring mechanics, while simple, are satisfying. The camera is better than most games of this sort, mostly because it uses fixed perspectives. And the story, while mostly a bright and sunny adventure, makes an excellent turn to bittersweet at the end. It isn’t too heavy or crushing, but it does finally show a little weight.

Ever Oasis isn’t a great game, but it is good enough at a enough things to be worth a look. This is a game destined to show up years from now on underrated and overlooked games lists, much like Radiata Stories and Dark Cloud 2. These sorts of games don’t really come around often enough, and I’m glad Nintendo took a chance on this in the waning days of the 3DS.

Ranking Final Fantasy Games

At one time I had planned a whole series of posts that was nothing but lists, but I never got around to getting it started, leaving me with a handful of lists waiting for me to feel like posting them.  The Dragon Quest one already went up, I have a Mario one waiting for me to finish replaying the series to see how it needs to be adjusted and there are a couple more in various stages of being finished.  Lately I’ve been blitzing through Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age, so today I am tossing up my ranking of the Final Fantasy series. The main series; I also have a list of spin offs and direct sequels, but those are another beast entirely. I thought about swapping in some games to take the place of the not present MMO’s, but decided to just leave them off.  11, 14 and 15 are not the list because I haven’t played them.

12. Final Fantasy 2 – I feel like a bully putting this at the bottom, but while it is interesting, it’s just not good.  It is the only game in the series I’ve never felt compelled to complete.

11. Final Fantasy 3 – There is a lot I like about this game, but I’ve only played the DS version and it is a rough draft of the perfected job system from 5.  Still, even this far down on the list is a game I like.

10. Final Fantasy 13 – I actually like this game a whole lot even if it appears unfinished at times. It plays like a fairly unsuccessful combination of 10 and 12, but I enjoyed it well enough.

09. Final Fantasy – The original has a lot of charm even if options for playing it are either brainlessly simple or annoyingly tedious. For all of its faults, I still prefer the NES version. It is a simple game, but there is a lot to love here.

08. Final Fantasy 4 – My enjoyment of this game mostly came from reading Nintendo Power and wishing I could play it. Once I finally got the chance to play it, FF4 never quite clicked with me the way plenty of other SNES JRPGs did.

07. Final Fantasy 8 – I find the plot of this game to be a mess and the junction system is fiddly and breakable, but I still find the game wholly compelling every time I play it.

06. Final Fantasy 10 – It loses the feeling of exploring a real world, but it has one of the best realized stories in the series and a solid battle system.

05. Final Fantasy 5 – This has my favorite character building system in any game. FFV’s job system is perfection.  The story is nothing, but this is a perfect systems game.

04. Final Fantasy 7 – For a long time I had it out for this game. The love it got seemed to detract from what I felt, and still feel, are superior games in the series, like 6 and 9.  But I can’t let that blind me to the fact that this is a phenomenal game.

03. Final Fantasy 9 – It isn’t the best game from a story or systems point of view, but there is something charming about the setting and characters. It is the perfect synthesis of old and new Final Fantasy.

02. Final Fantasy 12 – Playing the remake has solidified just how much I like this game. The gambit system is brilliant and the world is the best in the series.  This is a game you can get lost in for hours and hours. It also has the most underrated cast in the series.

01. Final Fantasy 6 – Still the best in the series. It has a great cast, a terrific story and pretty great systems.  FF6 isn’t just my favorite FF game; it is one of my favorite games of all time.

Spider-Man Homecoming

This is going to end up being a fairly negative sounding review. I know that as I start to write it, because while I came out of Spider-Man Homecoming having enjoyed it the more I thought about it as started to write this review the more it seemed to fall apart.  Spider-Man Homecoming is not a bad film.  It has that slickly produced Disney/Marvel sheen, solid performances from its starring trio and a lot of good ideas in its foundation.  The movie also fails to build up to anything or follow through on any of its thematic ideas.

It starts with Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes having his clean up job taken by company owned by Stark in the wake of the first Avenger’s movie.  Upset about losing his job to the person who made the mess, Toomes and his employees keep some of the alien salvage they already had and try to figure out how it works. Starting with this is a smart move, doing for an origin story for the villain rather than the hero.  We don’t need to Spider-Man’s origin again.  Unfortunately, after the set up the movie gives the viewer precious little about Toomes, who becomes the Vulture. It makes him rather sympathetic, except when he suddenly decided he’s okay with killing people.

After the opening the film focuses on Peter and his desire, after helping out in Civil War, to join the Avengers.  He uses the supersuit that Iron Man gave him and solves local crimes while being ignored by Iron Man, who has pawned him off on Happy Hogan who also ignores him. I don’t really get the arc they were trying to give Peter in this movie. The lesson, I guess, is that he needs to focus more on living his life than joining the Avengers, but his actions in the movie don’t reflect him ever learning that lesson.  He does the same thing the whole time and other than this movie making him shitty at being a superhero he seems to be trying to do the right thing.  His experiences don’t lead up to any change, though the movie makes one happen at the end anyway.

That is my big problem with the movie.  It starts with some good ideas and ends in places those ideas could have lead, but the movie in between doesn’t actually connect them.  This is in spite of solid performances by Keaton, Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Holland.  It is fun to spend time with these characters, I just wish I could do so in a better movie.  Peter fails as a hero, but suffers no consequence and learns no lessons.  Iron Man, and/trough Happy, tells him stay small and close to home while focusing on his schooling, but the movie doesn’t show him do that.  He bails on his class mates and they aren’t particularly bothered by it.  And the action scene escalate while Spider-Man does a better job handling them.  He succeeds at what he was told not to do and that somehow teaches him not to do it.

The school stuff is fun, but it is also very undercooked.  The videos of the school news team and Captain America PSA’s are the best part of the movie, hands down.  While it sets up some John Hughes like high school drama, the movie never really does anything with it.  It is a good idea that is handled in an unsatisfying way.  The worst part is a stupid line at the end for one of the characters that left me flabbergasted at what they were going for.

Spider-Man Homecoming is pleasant to watch. That is more than enough to buoy the viewer while watching it.  Upon reflection it is a jumble of ideas that don’t coalesce into a real story and the spectacle is never really that spectacular, though that last part might be the fault of the too dark theater I saw it in.  I liked the movie. It is easily the better than the two Amazing Spider-Man movies.  Unfortunately for Homecoming, this year has been a very good year for superhero movies and with Logan and Wonder Woman in recent memory, it is hard to get excited for a film that is merely okay.

***1/2

What I Read in June 2017

It was a tough month and I didn’t get nearly as much reading done as I would have liked. That is becoming a familiar refrain this year from me. I don’t know what it is, but I am just not getting my reading done. Part of that is how much time I’ve been spending on a few books, like my ill-fated attempt to read all of Dickens. I am going to admit here that I likely won’t get past Nicolas Nickleby this year. As much as I enjoy his novels, they don’t really make for marathon reading. They are too long to get more than one read. I should be catching up on my total for the year with the injection of Agatha Christie I’ve got coming. There was a big Kindle sale and I found a 5 book collection at a used book store, so I’ve got a lot of mystery goodness to get to this summer.

The Dark Monk

Oliver Potzsch

There is an enjoyable mystery/adventure story in here, but the way I read this book really hurt getting to it. First of all, I didn’t read it; I listened to it. It was my next audio book after finishing with the Bosch books I had. As I’ve said before, when you listen to an audio book you are hearing another person’s interpretation of the work. This is generally not a big a deal, but reading lines with the right inflection can turn a line sarcastic or joking when it isn’t necessarily written that way. On top of that, with The Dark Monk the book was also translated from German to English. That is another layer of interpretation, meaning that listening to this book in audio book form means that I was getting something two steps removed from what was originally written.

This book isn’t some great work of art that needs to be exactly the author’s vision to be enjoyed, it is a fun historical adventure, but it does give me a way to excuse some odd things in this book. For a book that seems to take a lot of care for historical accuracy, some of the word choices seem out of place. It is jarring when the dialogue doesn’t seem to match the setting. But that might not be the fault of the author, it might be the translator. Or it might have to do with how it was read. Problems like that crop up just often enough to hamper the experience, but they don’t get in the way of the story.

The story is breezy and enjoyable. This time Simon, Magdalena and Jakob look into a group of bandits terrorizing the countryside and following the trail of a hidden Templar treasure. They have to both avoid the bandits and members of a secret church organization who wants the treasure for themselves. They are joined by the aristocratic sister of a murdered priest, which starts to drive a wedge between Simon and Magdalena. Meanwhile, Jakob is purposefully distracted with torture and executions. It isn’t a perfect story, but it is pretty enjoyable.

A Caribbean Mystery

Agatha Christie

A Miss Marple mystery as she takes a vacation to the Caribbean and gets mixed up in a murder, as she is wont to do. I’ve read the sequel to this book already, though I didn’t realize it until about halfway through. Miss Marple is on vacation at a resort hotel that has several semi-permanent guests. One of them mentions a murder, but quickly shuts his mouth. The next morning he turns up dead of an apparent heart attack. Miss Marple suspects foul play, and that the foul play isn’t finished, but she needs help to uncover the plot before it claims too many lives.

It might just be the order I’ve read her books in, which is to say whatever order I happen across them, but lately I’ve noticed the Marple stories I’ve read have featured a much more active Marple than the first few. She is still one to let others do the footwork and bring her the information. Still, this isn’t one that has her swooping in at the end to solve a mystery that she barely seemed to be aware of before. It creates a compelling group of characters to explore as Marple and her allies sniff out the culprit. I liked it.

They Came to Baghdad

Agatha Christie

This is an odd one. It is kind of a spy novel featuring a protagonist who barely knows they are involved in any sort of intrigue. Victoria Jones flies to Baghdad on a whim after losing her job to follow a man she met one time. She is flighty, but also pretty quick on her feet lying her way through society. There a betrayed secret agent stumbles into her hotel room and dies. His handler employs her to help find who betrayed their man. She meets the man again and starts a relationship as she looks for murderer.

Victoria is a fun character. She is just silly enough to make things fun even as they turn deadly. She stumbles into and out of dangerous situations armed only with her quick wit. No real knowledge or intelligence, just an ability to read people and construct plausible lies. It really works even though the book isn’t exactly filled with surprises. I enjoyed it quite a bit in the end.

Netflix Original Movies

A few months ago I had a very stupid thought.  On a wild hair, I decided that I was going to watch every original movie that Netflix released this year.  I wanted to see more new movies this year, and I figured the best way to do that was to watch the new movies that I was already paying for with my Netflix subscription.

This was a foolish idea for several reasons. The first is that this year Netflix has ramped up the number of new releases they are putting out, which seems to be around one a week.  Since I didn’t conceive of this plan until about two months into the year, I had quite the backlog as soon as I started.  Additionally, while I knew not all of the movies would be things that appeal to me, I thought seeing different things would help expand my taste. I’ve been writing movie reviews on this blog for more than 5 years, and in the process of setting up this index, I realized that I have given a lot more positive reviews than negative ones.  I generally only write reviews of movies I seen in the theater and it turns out I am a pretty good judge of my own taste. I don’t go see movies I don’t expect to like and while this isn’t foolproof – I did see Cowboys & Aliens – it makes most trips to the movies enjoyable. It also limits exposure to new experiences.

Netflix, though, has done a lot to help me find those new experiences.  I hadn’t really watched many Asian films before subscribing to the service, but I’ve developed a taste for Martial Arts movies and Wuxia.  Zeroing in on the Netflix originals, which started with Beasts of No Nation in 2015 though they came to my attention last year with the release of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel, seemed like a good idea. So I am not only watching the movies that interest me, like the goofy British spoof Mindhorn or the war movie Sand Castle, but also the ones that don’t appear to be up my alley, like the foreign language acquisitions or low key thrillers like Small Crimes. It turns out, however, what I am forcing myself to do is watch movies I don’t think I’ll like instead of watching some I think I will like or already know I do like, making it even more likely that I will dislike the new thing.  That has made me resent this project and that massive fool forcing it on me (ie: myself).

It hasn’t been a complete failure, though. I have watched and enjoyed some movies that I likely never would have even considered before.  I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, unwieldy title aside, was very enjoyable.  I also really liked Win it All and Deidra & Laney Rob a Train.  I think I am going to keep going with this stupid plan, though I intend to have a much quicker hook for a movie a movie I do not like.

Below is a list containing all the movies I have watched, in order of how much I enjoyed them.  I’ve also included a one sentence review of each movie. There are still a handful of foreign language films and a documentary or two that I haven’t gotten to yet, but I hope to finish them up over the next few weeks or so.

  1. Okja – full review went up earlier. Okja is a near masterpiece that combines Steven Speilberg with Terry Gilliam.
  2. I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore – A woman gets burgled and teams up with her neighbor to get revenge; it is both charming and kind of dark.
  3. Mindhorn – a goofy spoof about a washed up TV detective desperate for one last chance at fame.
  4. Win it All – a gambling addict tries to go straight in this low key comedy.
  5. Nobody Speak – a documentary looking at the Hulk Hogan v Gawker lawsuit and the current attacks on the press.
  6. Deidra & Laney Rob a Train – two young girls rob a train to pay their mother’s bail, but its funnier than it sounds.
  7. Imperial Dreams – a newly paroled father tries to do what’s best for his son, but his past still has some hold on him. It is good if not groundbreaking.
  8. Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower – a both heartwarming and depressing look at a Chinese boy who lead protests against the Chinese government.
  9. Casting JonBenet – a documentary that examines the JonBenet Ramsay case by letting people familiar with talk at a supposed audition for a movie about it. Its pretty good.
  10. BLAME! – an anime movie about an automated city that no longer recognizes humanity as its master. It is good if dark.
  11. Handsome: A Netflix Movie Mystery – it is essentially a movie that is a fake episode of detective show that is charming but weightless.
  12. Girlfriend’s Day – a look at a fake new holiday in a world where greeting card writers are celebrities that ends just as it gets going.
  13. Shimmer Lake – a crime movie that plays out backwards but still holds few surprises.
  14. War Machine – a broad and disjointed satire of the later days of the war in Afghanistan. Sometimes it is really good, often it isn’t.
  15. In the Shadow of Iris – a sexy thriller about a faked abduction that turns into a murder. It is fine.
  16. Counterpunch – a look at the modern state of pro and amateur boxing in America.
  17. Get Me Roger Stone – a bleak look at a human cockroach. It veers a little too close to making anything the subject does sound acceptable to be good.
  18. Coin Heist – a kid’s dad is accused of defrauding a prep, so he and some friends try to rob the mint of quarters to get the money back.
  19. The Discovery – a man discovers proof of an afterlife and people deal with the consequences. I found it frustrating.
  20. Sand Castle – another modern war drama; it is perfectly serviceable but unoriginal.
  21. Journey to Greenland – two French guys go to Greenland to stay with one of their fathers, they have mildly interesting adventures.
  22. Burning Sands – a well-meaning but ham fisted look at problems prevalent in traditionally black fraternities.
  23. Sahara – a mediocre animated movie about snake racism.
  24. Small Crimes – bad people do bad things, lots of people end up dead, I don’t know why I should be entertained by it.
  25. Clinical – a horror movie that lives up to its name. You couldn’t pay me to care.
  26. David Brent: Life on the Road – a follow up to The Office with none of the humanity and an undeserved happy ending for its protagonist.
  27. The Most Hated Woman In America – this is about 3 different movies, but none of them work.
  28. Sandy Wexler – Adam Sandler appears to be trying, but this movie is too long and not very funny.
  29. You Get Me – Fatal Attraction for teenagers, but with even worse sexual politics.
  30. iBoy – a kid gets his phone shot into his face and uses his new phone powers to become some kind of would be superhero. It doesn’t really work.
  31. Tramps    – I checked out early and completely from this one, I can’t really give it a review.
  32. Take the 10 – a comedy about two kids’ attempts to get money to go to a concert or something. It isn’t good.

Super Mario Replay: New Super Mario Bros

I haven’t managed to get my Wii or Gamecube set up to play Super Mario Sunshine, but I did find time to run through New Super Mario Bros. Playing New Super Mario Bros after recently beating the original 2D Mario games is kind of a strange experience. It makes it clear just how much of a backwards looking title it is. It feels like an amalgamation of Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario World, but with some regressions to the original Super Mario Bros thrown in. It has a smattering of new ideas, but it seems largely to be an exercise in stoking nostalgia.

That might be a too harsh assessment. There are some new and interesting ideas. The Giant and Mini mushrooms are good ideas, even if one is mostly pointless and the other is an over-used secret generator. I also had some fun with the turtle shell power up even though it is as dangerous as it is helpful. And while it doesn’t feel like it is breaking new ground, it also isn’t directly copying any of the previous games in the series. It takes from all over the series. The world map feels very Mario 3, the gameplay feels more like Super Mario World. The secrets in the level, with 3 hidden coins to find while poking around mostly linear levels, feels a lot like Yoshi’s Island. While Nintendo put “New” in the title, it is clearly a backwards looking game.

That kind of makes sense. New Super Mario Bros was the first new 2D Mario game in more than a decade. If you don’t count Yoshi’s Island, it had been around fifteen years since the last time Mario had featured in a 2D platformer. With Super Mario 64, the series left the sidescroller behind. And even then, there had only been that game and Sunshine since the SNES. After getting roughly seven Mario games in roughly ten years, from after Yoshi’s Island to New Super Mario Bros it was ten years with two. New Super Mario Bros was the start of a renaissance of Mario games, the first in a line when they started coming much more often.

I don’t think New Super Mario Bros holds up too well compared to other Mario games. It was successful because it was being compared to no Mario games, which it is clearly much better than. However, it lacks the spark that most of the other games have. Each of the original run of Mario games felt like an event. It was something new and different and exciting. NSMB feels like a reminder of that feeling. It feels like all old Mario games and somehow none of them. It is creating something new, because no Mario game looked or played like, but doing everything it can to feel like something old.

It also feels like Nintendo was stretching muscles they hadn’t used in a long time. It is occasionally rough, with some weak levels and too many secrets hidden behind mini-mushroom pipes, but you can almost feel the development team learning how to make this sort of game as they go. Which is why I think each subsequent New Super Mario Bros game is better than this one. This was a proof of concept, and Nintendo learned that both they could still make this sort of game and that this sort of game will sell.

For all that this game lacks the spark of the games that made Mario Mario, it is still a very good game. I did speed through it in about six or seven hours over two days. It is a lot of fun. Not gold standard, best game of all time fun, but solid fun. That is something that the Mario series has never failed to deliver. Even if this game was junk, the fact that it seems to have been the impetuous for the ongoing Mario renaissance more than makes it worthwhile.

Okja Review

I don’t know that Okja is first great Netflix movie, but it is easily their best offering since they started distributing movies. Much of the furor over this movie is from the reception of it, or really the reception of Netflix, at the Cannes film festival. There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth as to how Netflix is ruining itself by refusing to change its business model to get theatrical releases for its movies. Since I watch a lot more movies on Netflix than I do in theaters and only really wish Netflix would do a better job of letting people know that a new movie is coming. With Okja, though, it is a little disappointing, since this movie feels like one that would have benefited from being seen on the big screen.

Okja is a strange movie.  That is certainly not a bad thing, but it is impossible to ignore. It changes from what feels like a Spielberg movie before morphing into something like a Terry Gilliam movie. It is an odd mixture of tones that almost doesn’t work, and although they never really cohere into one tone, it does make for a uniquely entertaining movie watching experience.

After a prologue that sets up the Mirando Corporation, their insanely peppy CEO and their superpig experiment, it turns into something like E.T. One of the superpig’s that were distributed around the world to see who can raise them best ended up in the Korean mountains. It is named Okja by Mija and her grandfather.  Mija treats Okja like a pet, thinking her Grandfather had saved money to purchase the animal outright. That is disrupted when representatives from Mirando show up, declare Okja the best superpig and whisk it back to America. Mija sets out to get her friend back, teaming up somewhat incidentally with the Animal Liberation Front and eventually confronting the head of the Mirando Corporation.

The Korean stuff feels very Speilbergian.  Ahn Seo-hyun does a great job as Mija, giving a credible performance largely with a CGI monster.  It is much better than a similar performance in last year’s The Jungle Book. That contrasts with the big names, Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal, play the faces at Mirando as broad caricatures, a choice that worked for me but seems to be polarizing. They are odd and unlikeable, but the characters are supposed to be unlikeable. It makes the American characters feel like invaders in the movie.  The ALF, whose leader is played by Paul Dano, are somewhere in between, caring more about making points against Mirando than actually helping Mija rescue Okja.

The real triumph of this movie is how real Okja feels.  It isn’t any kind of step forward for special effects, but it is well done. The first act does great work establishing the relationship between Mija and Okja, which carries it through the attempted rescue in Seoul and the trip to America. It doesn’t all work, but the parts that work work incredibly well.

Those familiar with director Bong Joon-Ho’s other movies, like the excellent Snowpiercer, will not be surprised to hear that Okja gets dark. It is a stark look at factory farming. Other than the little girl, no one comes off looking well. It begs the viewer to laugh at at horrible things, because any other choice is too dark.  The movie leaves you somewhat heartbroken even as it suggests that there can be small victories.  Don’t miss it.

*****

What I Watched in June 2017

Movies

War of the Worlds – This was a Spielberg movie that I hadn’t seen. It seems a lot like working through 9/11 trauma, but it is also some solid science fiction spectacle. I don’t think this is one of Spielberg’s best, but it is pretty good. ****

Wonder Woman – read review here. *****

Fire & Ice – A Ralph Bakshi rotoscoped fantasy movie based on Frank Frazetta drawings. I like Frazetta, but I am fairly certain at this point that Bakshi is just not for me. **

Revenge – The late Tony Scott directs and Kevin Costner stars in this mediocre and heavy movie. There are solid points and some great shots, but it is mostly just slow and painful. **1/2

Harlock – Decent looking, this new take on Space Pirate Captain Harlock seems determined to downplay really interesting things in favor of tired clichés. It was so close to being so much better. **

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – read about it here. It is fine, I guess. It lacks the spark of the first three but isn’t completely terrible. ***

The Good, the Bad and the Weird – This is an utter delight. Like the title suggests it is a take on the Leone classic, but it is also very much it’s own thing. A thief and a killer are after a supposed treasure, followed relentlessly by a bounty hunter. It may be set in Asia, but it is absolutely a western and one with some pretty terrific shoot outs. It is just a blast from start to finish. ****

Fast and Furious Tokyo Drift – I know I rated this with the rest of the series a few months ago, but this was the first time I actually watched it from start to finish. It’s okay. It is not really the black sheep of the series some people make it out to be, but neither is it on the level of something like Fast 5. ***

The Hollow Point – I watched this for Patrick Wilson and he’s fine, but this is a really dark new western that really doesn’t have much to recommend it. Other than Ian McShane’s performance, which is delightful. **

Kung Fu Killer – Following Fthismovie’s Junesploitation, I needed a Kung Fu movie to watch and this Donnie Yen vehicle was one of the ones I hadn’t seen that was on Netflix. It is pretty good. It is kind of a police procedural that follows a martial arts master as he helps the police track down a serial killer that is targeting other martial arts masters. There are several good fights and a decent mystery. It is a lot of fun. ****

Shimmer Lake – A heist movie shot in reverse. It is occasionally entertaining and compelling, but the twist seemed obvious to me pretty early and there wasn’t enough else there to really pull me in. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. **1/2

In the Shadow of Iris – A French thriller about a fake kidnapping that appears to go horribly wrong. The big problem with this movie is that all of the characters look alike. That turns out to be a plot point for two of them, but the other two just look too similar for no reason. Also, the subtitles on Netflix leave the screen faster than I can read them. Still, it’s not badly made. ***

Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower – This is framed at an uplifting look at a young person making a political stand against a great power, but it ends with his dreams mostly being crushed and China doing whatever it wants with Hong Kong. Still, it is a well-made film about an interesting piece of history. ***1/2

The Jungle Book – This is the 1994 one directed by Steven Sommer and starring Jason Scott Lee and Cary Elwes. I loved this movie as a kid and it kind of holds up. There are some really bad effects, and the questionable casting of a Chinese/Hawaiian man as an Indian, but it is also a solid adventure. It isn’t as good as Sommer’s The Mummy, but I still enjoyed it. ***

The Ghost and the Shadow – A movie about the true story of some man eating lions that can’t decide if it wants to be a drama or Jaws on the savannah. It is fine. **1/2

Nobody Speak – a close look at the Gawker v Hulk Hogan lawsuit that turns into a chilling look at threats faced by the free press in America. While I am sure it was compelling while they were making it, it seems all the more vital when the shitbag in chief is working to further attacks on the press. ***1/2

Counterpunch – a look at the state of American boxing, both amateur and professional. It is a pretty solid documentary about a subject I don’t really care about. ***

iBoy – a kind of pseudo superhero movie where a young kid get a cell phone smashed into his head and gets special powers. I found it incredibly dull if not particularly poorly made. **

You Get Me – Fatal Attraction for teens, but it is kind of a mess and completely unable to make its characters seem relatable or human. *1/2

Okja – review coming soon *****

Baby Driver – review here. *****

TV

GLOW – This show is a near perfect dramedy. It is even caught between drama and comedy in episode length, with each episode running slightly longer than the usual comedy half hour, but not as long as an hour long show, even figuring on the 46 minute running time of most network dramas. Here is a show about making a show about wrestling. It stars Allison Brie and Marc Maron, but other members of the ensemble start to flesh out their characters before the all too brief run of episodes is over. This show is just completely watchable. It does pretty much everything right.

Fargo S3 – I wanted to write a full post about this, but I don’t know that I can. This is the weakest season of the show, but that doesn’t mean it is bad. Season 2 of Fargo is an out and out and masterpiece and Season 1 is really good. Season 3 takes some big swings, and not all of them pay off. While I found it enthralling moment to moment, it didn’t really add up to a coherent experience. Some of the thematic threads took too long to make themselves evident and others only somewhat paid off. There is a deliberate coldness to this season, with the characters, and Carrie Coon’s Gloria Burgle especially, isolated from the others. We don’t really get the showdowns between the good guys and the bad guys, at least not until the last couple of episodes. A lot of that was very deliberate. Season 2 was a Western and played out like it, this season was something else. Something slower and more contemplative. The show spends most of the season wrestling with the nature and importance of truth, but it can’t quite pull it all together in the end. Maybe I’ll think differently of this season when I rewatch it, but right now I consider it a brilliant failure.

Baby Driver Review

Baby Driver is the best movie I’ve seen this year. It might also be my least favorite Edgar Wright movie, though that is far from fair since at least two of his movies count among my all-time favorites. In what has been a rather dull summer so far, Baby Driver is an unmatched shot of adrenaline. It does everything right and is pure fun from start to finish. And while it never quite breaks out of genre conventions, it still contains a few of the most surprising moments I’ve seen in a movie in years.

Ansel Elgort stars as Baby – B A B Y Baby – a young man who has gotten entangled with some nasty dudes. He owes a debt to Doc, played by Kevin Spacey, who is forcing him to pay it back by being the getaway driver for the heists he masterminds with an ever rotating crew of thieves. Baby is constantly listening to his iPod and all of his driving is synchronized to specific songs. Once he has paid Doc back, Baby intends to go clean. His newly formed relationship with diner waitress Debora makes this an even more enticing proposition, but as tends to happen he is pulled back in for one more job and everything goes to hell.

The various bank robbers that join Doc’s crews are a lot of fun. Jon Hamm plays Buddy, whose friendliness hides barely contained menace. He is married to Eiza Gonzalez’s Darling, who is a little more playfully nuts than Buddy. The stand out other than Hamm is Jamie Foxx as Bats, who doesn’t even pretend to hide the menace like Buddy. He is a danger not just to those who get in his way, but also to his own partners. He is just straight up scary. Baby, meanwhile, is charming and quiet, either so cool nothing fazes him or doing his best to hide how scared he is of the crazy murderers he is forced to work with. The characters aren’t as layered as the ones from the Cornetto Trilogy, but they are still strong.

Wright’s usual perfect editing is on display in this movie, as each of its action set pieces are set to a particular song. It works perfectly, turning Baby Driver into essentially an action musical. The characters don’t sing, but all of their shooting and driving become highly choreographed dance numbers. The best one is likely the one that opens the movie, set to “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. It is also filled with clever foreshadowing and call backs, making for a movie that will surely reward repeat viewings.

Baby Driver is an excellent movie. It is tense and buoyant and touching and the perfect antidote to a lot of the stale franchise movies clogged up theaters over the last few months. It is hard to get further into what makes it great without spoiling a turn about midway that was one of the most surprising things I’ve seen on a movie screen this year. I don’t know if Baby Driver is a perfect movie, but it is one that I am eager to revisit as much as possible.

*****