Railroad Tigers (2016)

In Railroad Tigers, Jackie Chan’s character is a Chinese villager living under the yoke of the Japanese army during WWII. He is the leader of a secret rebel group, the Flying Tigers. He leads the small, patriotic group on raids to harass and steal from Japanese soldiers stationed on the trains that pass through his village. They aren’t soldiers, though, and although they constantly risk getting caught, they never really accomplish much. What can they do to truly help their country? When a wounded soldier tells them he has failed in his mission to blow up an important bridge nearby, they know what to do… but not how to do it. Will they succeed?

Almost the whole film happens on a train, though there are some scenes in the village as well. I laughed a lot and thoroughly enjoyed it. Those who have disparaging things to say may have found the pro-China and anti-Japanese themes distasteful; or they may dislike silly action movies, since many action movies these days are gritty, dark, or at least largely serious in tone; or perhaps it’s partly just that they’re English speakers who don’t like having to experience jokes via subtitles.

In fact I wish my Mandarin (and my Japanese) were stronger, because then I’d have been able to appreciate the dialog better. Nevertheless, even though I mostly had to rely on the English subtitles to understand the dialog, it was still hilarious. And you don’t need subtitles for the slapstick comedy, anyway; you could get a fair amount of enjoyment from the movie even with the subtitles off—assuming you like slapstick.

In fact, the main reasons I like Jackie Chan’s movies are: (a) they’re silly, and (b) each of his characters is charmingly and effectively protective. Moreover, as other reviewers unfailingly point out, it’s amazing that Jackie Chan is still not just alive but also kicking. Hats off to an amazing and very dedicated lifelong artist!


I’m looking forward to the next Jackie Chan movie already, and I don’t have long to wait: Kung Fu Yoga is being released in Singapore this week.

The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

To call this movie didactic is to make ‘didactic’ a compliment! The story is a clever allegory about a boy who’s bored because he’s lazy, jaded, or both. When he suddenly finds a huge gift box in his bedroom one day after school, he pulls it open to find a tollbooth and a car that takes him through a gate to another world, where he must convince two kings to allow Rhyme and Reason to return to a land suffering from chaos and discord. On the way he has to learn to value knowledge and thinking using words and numbers as tools to defeat the demons that lurk in the Mountains of Ignorance.

Much of my love for this movie is probably nostalgia, but even if you’ve never seen it before, I think you’ll love the colorful Dr. Seuss–like visuals, the allegorical names, and the thrilling adventure quest itself.

The movie is mostly a cartoon, but opens and closes with live-action sequences filmed and set in San Francisco.

I was so pleased when Warner Brothers released The Phantom Tollbooth on DVD. I loved the movie for years. I must have seen it by borrowing it on VHS tape from the library, Turtles, or Blockbuster, and I probably only read the classic 1961 book years after the fact.

I was reminded of The Phantom Tollbooth when I watched Disney’s Robin Hood because one of the voice actors (Candy Candido, who has a very distinctive, very low voice) is in both. In this movie, as the Awful Din, he sings: “Haaaaave youuuuu… ever heard an elephant tap dance, on a tin roof late at night? That’s noise! Beautiful noise!”

Keep reading for a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)

RahXephon (2002)

The show has stunning visuals; long, meditative pauses; a sci-fi plot with humanoid aliens; giant mechas, good and bad; Mayan design motifs; a coming-of-age story; time distortion; love triangles; a chosen one; an immortality quest; military loyalty and in-fighting; and more hidden identities than you can shake a stick at. Weird as the show is, it all comes together in the end (unlike Lost). Highly recommended!

I bought this set in Singapore very cheaply—too cheaply, it turns out. The picture quality for a good third of the episodes is terrible. Though the box has the MDA approval sticker on it, I don’t think the discs are legit.

Furthermore, this version has English subtitles but no English audio, except for the random words that are in English in the original. Hearing the original audio is somewhat edifying because I still remember some Japanese words from a class I took back in… 2002, coincidentally. However, I watched the show in English years ago, and I remember the story as being thoroughly weird even without subtitles that come across as error-prone, awkward or downright mystifying.

I want to watch the show (and the movie) with English audio and better quality video, and I feel bad for buying some kind of knock-off—I really try not to do that, since I think the content owners should always get the requisite fees. Luckily, there’s a RahXephon DVD set on Amazon again.

Titan A.E. (2000)

Weird music, beautiful drawn—and early CGI—visuals, and one of very, very few sci-fi movies in which the artificial gravity malfunctions and everything starts to float: Titan A.E. in a nutshell.

In movie history, it was the film whose financial failure destroyed Fox Animation Studios, the company responsible for the widely respected film Anastasia, its direct-to-TV sequel, and absolutely nothing else. (Fox’s BlueSky studio—responsible for the Ice Age franchise, among other things—is having better luck.)

Steve Perry and Dal Perry’s novelization of Titan A.E., which I read in 2007, added a lot to the characterization of the aliens by giving us the queen’s perspective.

I love not only the gravity malfunction, but also the hip 90s feel, the shiny bits of Wheedonesque dialog, the alien language and spacecraft, the hydrogen plants, the wake angels, the tense hide-and-seek sequence among the reflections in the ice crystals, and the (admittedly rather too instantaneous) transformation at the conclusion. I even like the prologue and yes, the “scrappy/grand” humans-are-underdogs plot.


Emma (Paltrow 1996)

Having just read Jane Austen’s Emma, I thought this movie version of Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow felt shallow and rushed. It’s conventional to say, especially with classics, that the book is better than the movie, but let’s go beyond that and attempt to say why.

One reason is that the movie must show where the narration can tell, and in this case, telling is better than showing, because Austen’s conveyance of characters’ feelings and attitudes is masterful. Her storytelling will be remembered when the names on the avenue of stars cease to evoke even the faintest flickers of recognition.

Another reason is that since in the novel there is a lot of narration, and the “action” consists primarily of people having conversations, the moviemakers invented “plausible” activities for the characters so that the actors have something to do in each scene apart from talk. The activities came across as contrived, though. I’d rather have been a bit bored by the characters’ social lives than feel distracted because the characters were acting like puppets on strings pulled this way and that by the needs of modern Hollywood.

The scene in which Emma and Mr. Knightley practice archery was particularly unsubtle, since it showed that her conclusions were, shall we say, totally off the mark, while his were, you guessed it, right on target. If you’re not already groaning from the overbearingness of the metaphor, consider that Emma’s mistakes are matchmaking errors; she’s trying to play cupid (as the text on DVD cover informs us, lest we fail to notice this entire bit of cleverness).

A third reason this version of Emma was slightly disappointing was that it pales in comparison to the just as short but more authentic A&E version of Emma starring Kate Bekinsale (also released in 1996). I remember the raw emotion of the scene at Box Hill vividly, though I watched it almost two years ago.

I must have remembered how the actors in the Beckinsale version looked and behaved, because the characters all seemed off in the Paltrow version. I don’t think it was just that I saw the Beckinsale version first. Can anyone believe a beauty like Gywneth Paltrow could be vulnerable, let alone mistaken? She’s the embodiment of smug confidence. Bekinsale portrays Emma’s characteristic overconfidence without the uncharacteristic hotshot attitude shown in the photo that adorns the cover of the Paltrow DVD.


I had a similar issue with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet in the 2005 Hollywood version of Pride and Prejudice. She’s just too spunky and exaggerated for the character to be historically believable. As in 2005, Hollywood tried to up the entertainment value, and that spoils it for me.

Give me history or give me death.

Or rather, if you’re going to modernize Emma, go all the way.

Rogue One (2016)

Prequels have the problem that you already know where they’re going to end. Rogue One had a couple of other problems, too: political correctness, rushed world-building, and lazy characterization. What it had going for it was nostalgia, humor, and a big CGI budget. Overall, I’d say it was okay but not great.


More details, with SPOILERS, below.

Continue reading Rogue One (2016)

Doctor Strange (2016)

I dare you to find a review of Doctor Strange that does not contain a variant of the word “kaleidoscope”. The special effects are indeed special.

As for the rest, you’ve got a gifted, wealthy, arrogant neurosurgeon, recently come down in the world; he gets his comeuppance from an ancient mystic who he hoped could give him back the use of his hands but who instead involves him in the struggle to protect Earth from some kind of evil purple chaos. Will he learn to suppress his ego, to conquer by submitting, or will he be seduced by raw power and the promise of immortality?

I loved the laugh-out-loud magic-meets-mundane humor as well as the special effects, but if you’re not a fan of fantasy, this Marvel Studios production will probably stretch your patience too far. There’s a bit of that same “the real world isn’t real” stuff that’s in the Matrix, which is fine as long as you don’t apply such fictional logic to the real real world. It’s not very tempting to do so, though, since the movie itself barely even takes the magic seriously.

What it does take seriously is the message. The movie wants us to remember that mental, physical, and mystical talents are all ultimately meaningless—or catastrophically destructive—if not wielded humbly.


Keep reading for a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Doctor Strange (2016)

Dark Matter (Season 2)

Huh. Well. I liked Dark Matter (Season 2) much better than Dark Matter (Season 1). The dialog and plotting improved, and now—ta-da!—I care about the characters as a cohesive group.

There were a variety of meta-improvements as well: they got rid of the cheap, irrelevant title sequence that calls to mind Transformers, and they gave the episodes titles. Yay!

And, incidentally, I learned that the ship is called The Raza as in “tabula rasa”, meaning “blank slate”. The premise of the show is that the crew are all given a new start, a blank slate. I’m glad there’s a reason for the weird (deliberately alien-sounding) name of the ship, but I wish the ship had been given a meaningful name by the characters, not the writers of the show. In the universe of the show, the ship was called The Raza before it was crewed by people with their memories wiped, which makes no sense. In contrast, Mal names his second-hand Firefly spaceship Serenity after fighting on the side of the Independents, the losing side, in the bloody Battle of Serenity Valley…

There was this awesome image of the crew that was rectangly-shaped in the more useful direction than the DVD cover I’ve used, but I think maybe that image is fanart and I didn’t want to just lift it from Google images, because that’s a bad impulse to indulge. Sometimes even a financially dangerous one!


More below on how Season 2 went, with lotsa SPOILERS.

Continue reading Dark Matter (Season 2)

Clueless (1995)

I watched Clueless to be able to compare it with Jane Austen’s Emma, on which it was based. I’d never seen it and had no 90s nostalgia for it at all. It was a decent retelling for its length, but I wasn’t amazed.


Details comparing the Austen novel with the movie follow below, with SPOILERS.

Continue reading Clueless (1995)

Smaragdgrün (2016)

I should have paid attention to that little word “finally” in the synopsis. The fact that this is the third movie in a trilogy explains a lot. I had no idea. I just thought it would be fun to watch a German movie about time-traveling teenagers.

In any case, I should have known it wouldn’t be much fun to watch a fantasy movie—especially a widescreen version of one—on a screen that’s only maybe eight inches across. Not only did I have a hard time appreciating the costumes and special effects, I had a hard time reading the subtitles.

I can still say I enjoyed listening to the movie, though!