The Great Wall (2016)

When I watched this on television at a friend’s house, I’d heard of the movie and wanted to see it (my dislike of the famous-Hollywood-star-in-Asia movie The Last Samurai notwithstanding), but had no idea there were lizard things in it. I suppose I assumed it was a historical story, or maybe a fantastical historical story with magicky people in it, like The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom (2014). I have just learned that the name for that genre is “wuxia”.

No, this was a monster movie. It was a good one! Like Pacific Rim (2013). Again, I sort of expected the monsters to be misunderstood, but no. They’re just monsters. The point is to kill them, not understand them. There are some vague bits of theme wafting around—trust, loyalty, discipline, and teamwork are good, while greed is bad—but really, the point is to stop the lizard monsters from taking over the world.

I enjoyed the Mandarin-heavy dialog because hey! I understood some of it! Every big-budget Hollywood movie with part of the plot set in China (e.g., Now You See Me 2), every Chinese movie with crossover Western appeal (e.g., Bleeding Steel), and every studio cooperation using big names from both the West and China, like this one, brings us closer to a fused future culture like the one in Firefly, even if some of the products of that cooperation, like this one, are not exactly greeted with resounding applause.

Bleeding Steel (2017)

Take Jackie Chan’s “loving father / brave protector” role from The Foreigner, subtract the tragedy, and add an over-the-top comic-book villain equipped with an airborne science lab and a fierce henchwoman in a Tron suit, and you’ve got Bleeding Steel. It wasn’t amazing, but I enjoyed it.

It was especially fun for me for two reasons, both related to my recent trip to Australia and New Zealand. First, on that trip, I skydived for the first time. There’s a scene (shown on movie posters) of Jackie Chan falling from a plane. Now I know what that feels like. Second, when touring the Sydney Opera House, our group was told that Jackie Chan had been filming stunts for a movie there. When I saw the movie, I recognized the location from having been there myself. Of course, I wasn’t actually on top of the Sydney Opera House, but I was in and around it.

When I told a friend I’d just seen a Jackie Chan movie, she thought I meant The Foreigner. No, not that one. Kung Fu Yoga? No, not that one, either. All three are Jackie Chan movies released in 2017! Now I learn there was a fourth: Namiya. It must have been a busy year for Jackie, not even counting two cartoon voice roles.

Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

Moral values are and should be demonstrated through art, but it’s better that they be embedded deeply so that they shine through, rather than pasted to the surface like so many flashy glass jewels. I found The Last Jedi too didactic in its details and (possibly) too cynical in its approach. See below if you want to know why.

Continue reading Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

Bottle Shock (2008)

The folks at The Marlborough Vintners Hotel, a lovely place to stay, are no fools. The people who pass through Blenheim care about one thing: wine. The shelf of DVDs at the front desk therefore includes the 2008 movie Bottle Shock, which I watched with my mother-in-law (who had seen it before). I mean, what else were we going to do with the rest of the afternoon, after the wine tour we went on?

It was a delight to see Alan Rickman play a British wine snob in this movie, a storyteller’s take on the watershed 1976 Paris Wine Tasting event that brought California wines to the attention of the world.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/bottle-shock/id301233114

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Watching Valerian and the Movie with the Ridiculously Long Harry Potter–esque Title was a strange experience. I can’t say I liked it overall.

I think what grated most was the absurd idealization of the beautiful, innocent, peaceful aliens. They’re harder to relate to than gods or robots! In religions across the world, supernatural beings (with the notable exception of Cthulhu) always have some human behavioral characteristics that help us understand, admire, and/or emulate them. In Asimov’s science fiction stories about robots, even the robots are more complicated (and thus more interesting) than these aliens, because even with only a scant handful of unbreakable rules to follow, conflict is inevitable.

Yes, the innocents are aliens, so we could imagine that they have a society infinitely freer of conflict than any we’ve ever come across, but there’s really no point putting them in a human story if they are impossible to identify with. Nevertheless, not only are they in this story, they are the story. If it’s not possible to care about them, then why would anybody want to watch this movie?

Well, Valerian contains a lot of surprising, inventive, and beautiful, uh, stuff. As this guardian review puts it:

Valerian has the courage of its fearsome convictions, and if you’re willing to overlook things like acting, plot, characterization, dialogue, character arcs, pacing, structure and leads, as many science fiction die-hards are willing to do, then Valerian is a nifty spectacle that excels as eye-candy even if it comes up short in every other respect.

In other words, maybe it’s cult-classic material, albeit not for my particular kind of cult.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/valerian-and-the-city-of-a-thousand-planets/id1254728550

More opinions below, with SPOILERS.

Continue reading Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Coco (2017)

I thought I disliked Olaf the snowman because he falls apart all the time, but I didn’t dislike Miguel’s skeleton ancestors in Coco when they fell apart (over and over again) in the oddly godless land of the dead, so it must be something else about Olaf that rubs me the wrong way. Sadly, the creators of Frozen made him the central character in the animated short Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, which played before Coco.

Coco was totally worth the wait, however. The storytelling was crystal clear, emotional, and well-structured, with appropriate foreshadowing, lots of call-backs, and some stunning visuals. I couldn’t believe that a couple of adults next to me in the theater found it hard to stay awake; I found it hard not to cry.

Coco is the story of Miguel, the youngest in a long line of Mexican shoemakers. Coco is Miguel’s ancient great-grandmother. Coco and her mother were abandoned by an aspiring music man, so no one in the family is allowed to sing or play an instrument. They’re all fine with that… except Miguel. He wants nothing more than to be allowed to develop his musical talent. Eager to prove himself, he tries to steal the guitar from the tomb of a famous local musician so he can enter a competition being held as part of the town’s Day of the Dead celebrations. The theft doesn’t go as planned, and Miguel finds himself on a quest that teaches him about the dangers of ambition and the value of family.

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

Continue reading Coco (2017)

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure

It was pretty weird seeing a story about European winter traditions in a theater in tropical Southeast Asia, where Chinese New Year is a more important family holiday than Christmas. Here, if Christmas is commercialized, it’s at least partly because many people aren’t actually Christian.

This Christmas featurette stars Olaf, who I never liked, being just as annoying as ever. His broken-fourth-wall deadpan comments failed to amuse. Meanwhile, Anna and Elsa were so perfect as to be utterly boring, and Christoff was milked for awkward gross-out humor. I didn’t like the feature film Frozen much to begin with, but Olaf’s Frozen Adventure was terrible.

I’m not the only one who didn’t like the short. The reasons mostly seem to be that Pixar usually produces shorts that are surprising, cute, and clever, whereas this one was dull and obviously commercially motivated, and not even all that short.

I did catch Elsa saying “I’m sorry”—which she never does in the entire movie where she’s kinda (but not really) the villain. So there’s that.

Paycheck (2003)

I think this sci-fi action movie directed by John Woo (who also made Red Cliff) deserves a better reputation than it has. I like it better than all the other movies that were made from Philip K. Dick stories that I’ve seen so far (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Impostor), except for maybe The Adjustment Bureau. The premise is memorably fascinating (thanks, Phil) and the rest of the movie holds up reasonably well if you’re not expecting a cinematic masterpiece. (Yes, yes, you love Blade Runner. Fine. But I don’t, and at any rate Blade Runner isn’t fun, it’s grim.)

In Paycheck, Michael Jennings is a smart but lonely guy who gets paid to reverse-engineer (and improve) high-tech products. After each short-term contract job is completed, his memory is wiped of the work he did. What if, during the longest, highest-paid stint of his career, he learned that his boss had some kind of terrible plan? He’d still have to have his memory erased at the end of the job, but he’d need a way to tell himself how to escape the trap he was in while preventing his boss from carrying out the plan…

How does he escape, what is the plan, and how does he stop his boss? Watch the movie!

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/paycheck/id550804986

Or see below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Paycheck (2003)

Predestination (2014)

It’s impossible to talk about Predestination without giving away important surprises. If you’ve read the Robert E. Heinlein story All You Zombies, although I gather the story is a bit different, you more or less know how the story goes and can proceed to the plot summary. If not, go watch the movie! It’s a very clever retro-futuristic sci-fi thriller, and has nothing to do with actual zombies.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/predestination/id912751334

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

Continue reading Predestination (2014)