Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

The word “mnemonic” has nothing to do with anything in the movie. Nothing. It’s just a weird word that makes the title sound fancy.

As an adjective, “mnemonic” means “aiding or designed to aid the memory” or “relating to the power of memory”. As a noun, it means a special word or poem that helps you recall a set of connected ideas—like “FANBOYS”, which reminds you of seven coordinating conjunctions in English: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

But the premise of Johnny Mnemonic is that the protagonist is carrying data in his head like a drug mule and doesn’t even know what it is! Moreover, he doesn’t remember much about himself; he dumped his memories to make more space to carry data. From the title, I would have guessed he had a special memory skill, but no. He just has a cybernetic upgrade that turned his brain into a (rather faulty) hard drive. He’s nothing special. Might as well be named John Doe.

William Gibson wrote the screenplay as well as the short story of the same name, so the title was his choice, nothing to do with Hollywood. Maybe he picked it because the character wishes he could remember his childhood?

Watch it on Amazon

See below for more on what the movie is like and why I didn’t particularly like it.

Continue reading Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

Need for Speed (2014)

Currently the Rotten Tomatoes rating for Need for Speed is 23% (57% audience score). I can understand why it wasn’t a critical success, but I’m definitely on the side of the audience here.

Watch this movie if…

  • …you like car racing movies.
  • …you like practical special effects (rather than CGI).
  • …you don’t mind a ridiculous premise.
  • …you like happy endings and don’t mind a predictable plot.

Do NOT watch this movie if…

  • …you are tired of The Fast and the Furious franchise.
  • …you hate tropes and are hoping for some literary merit.
  • …your attention span is less than 130 minutes.
  • …you are a pedantic gearhead.

Personally, I don’t mind stories whose plots I can predict. After all, I’ve been trying to become an expert on plot by watching and summarizing movies. What bugs me is when I can predict the dialogue, and this movie didn’t have that problem. A commercially successful movie plot has to have certain elements, but there’s no excuse for stale dialogue. If the characters are going to say something obvious, they may as well say nothing at all.

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 Need for Speed (2014)

Onward (2020)

Either Onward wasn’t that great, or I was in a weird mood when I watched it.

Or maybe the previews ruined it. I prefer to watch movies that I know nothing about. Movie trailers that show you jokes from the movie are awful, because a joke is really only funny when it’s a surprise.

Or maybe it’s that I don’t like movies about high school. Onward is about a magical quest, sure, but it is also somewhat about being in high school. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a television or film depiction of “the American high school experience” that bore any resemblance to my own high school experience. Relatability fail. Every time.

Or maybe it’s that the movie can’t be about an epic quest and high school at the same time… too much cognitive dissonance.

Or maybe it’s that Pixar’s charm is fading; too much reliance on a formula? The story did seem to have the odor of plot coupons — not that the brothers had to physically collect things, but they did go through a series of preordained steps to reach a goal. Sure, there was a meaningful ‘inner’ journey, but the outer journey seemed a bit paint-by-numbers.

It’s not that it was a bad movie. It was good. But I couldn’t love it whole-heartedly.

The funniest part of Onward was the scene at the chasm. I laughed so much! But there are some really, really sad moments too… And some cringey ones, which is probably another reason I didn’t like the movie as much as I was hoping to.

Watch on Amazon

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 Onward (2020)

The Swan Princess (1994)

I didn’t see The Swan Princess when I was a kid so I have no happy nostalgic feelings for it. I have almost no happy feelings for it at all, to be frank. It was the stupidest thing I’ve seen in a long time.

Was the whole thing terrible? No… The villain song was good. Still, although I love me a good villain song (Ursula’s in particular), even a great villain song can’t hold up an entire movie.

And no, in case you were curious, the plot is nothing like the plot of the ballet. That’s what I’m told, anyway, and I believe it—in part because I can’t imagine a ballet that would be anything like this movie.

Whereas The Swan Princess seems hopelessly outdated, Beauty and the Beast, which came out three years earlier, seems like a timeless classic. I hesitate to even compare the two, though they are both early nineties princess cartoons. A less unfair comparison to make would be with Thumbelina (1994), which came out the same year… and was also terrible.

Maybe kids like this nonsense… after all, The Swan Princess has like… eight sequels! Still, I think children deserve better.

The Lion King (2019)

Okay, Disney. The Lion King (1994) is my, like, second-favorite Disney cartoon. How are you going to handle it? Hopefully with great care.

You want to change the jokes?
Great. That’s a must.

You want to give Nala some kind of “Lion Queen” status, more agency, even her very own second-tier villain?
Fine. Do that. Yay for us wimmin.

But then, you also want to take away Rafiki’s words of wisdom? You’d better have a good reason!

You know what I’m talking about… right?

Continue reading The Lion King (2019)

XKCD Unpopular Positive Opinion Challenge: Speed Racer (2008)

When I saw the Unpopular positive opinion challenge on xkcd, I scrolled through my movie log and looked up a few scattered titles to see what their scores were on Rotten Tomatoes.

The challenge is to find a movie that…

  • you genuinely like (not “so bad it’s good”)
  • came out in your adult life post-2000, and
  • is rated below 50% on Rotten Tomatoes

I didn’t find many low-rated movies that I strongly disagree about. The exception is Speed Racer (2008).

Continue reading XKCD Unpopular Positive Opinion Challenge: Speed Racer (2008)

War Horse (2011)

Next time someone says to me, “The book is always better than the movie,” I can say: “Hah! You have not seen War Horse!”

Stories evolve. Later versions are not necessarily better, and stories told using different media have different strengths and different constraints. Nevertheless, though the movie owes much to both its predecessors—the children’s novel written by Michael Morpurgo and the stage play that uses puppets by Handspring—the movie is hands down the best version.

Why?

The relationships between the characters have been tweaked to support the story better. The story itself has been tweaked to smooth the pacing and heighten the drama. Moreover, the settings shine. A book can describe a setting evocatively, but not every book does. Spielberg’s pictures are worth many more thousands of words than Morpurgo gave us. Meanwhile, the anti-war didacticism, which sometimes upstaged Handspring’s puppets in the play, is toned down to the point that it’s almost absent from the dialog of the movie. After all, on the big screen, the horror of war speaks for itself, and anyway, there are other stories that better show its terrible cost. This is not the story of the lives and deaths of human soldiers, nor even the story of a boy who loved his horse. This is the story of a horse that went to war.

It’s beautiful, and so absorbing that I didn’t realize until after I’d watched it twice that it’s two and a half hours long!

According to the reviews, not everyone likes the old-fashioned “honest, emotionally direct” storytelling, calling it overly sentimental, and some deride it as mere family-friendly entertainment, too clean to be serious about its ostensibly grim subject matter.

I refuse to dislike the movie on those grounds. Is it calculated to be emotionally satisfying? Maybe. But it satisfies, which is more than I can say for a lot of movies.

See below for a short summary, a very very detailed summary (with SPOILERS), a list of the changes I liked in the movie, a list of some of the movie reviews, and a few other thoughts.

Continue reading War Horse (2011)

War Horse (the film of the stage play)

Sometimes the medium is the message. When I watched a Singapore screening of the play War Horse which had been performed in London at the National Theatre, I was underwhelmed by the plot and script but full of admiration for the puppetry that brought horses (and a hilarious goose) to life on the stage. Hats off to Handspring Puppet Company for an awesome performance and the engineering and practice that went into it.

Continue reading War Horse (the film of the stage play)

Inala: A Zulu Ballet (Singapore 2019)

I found this performance to be a bit mystifying. It featured the Soweto Gospel Choir and an international fusion dance group. The choir moved around and danced during the performance. Overall, I would say there was a lot of energy and movement and skill, but I felt the lack of a discernible story to tie it all together.

Continue reading Inala: A Zulu Ballet (Singapore 2019)

John Wick (2014)

I was impressed with the first bit of this movie, which had very little predictable dialog—very little dialog at all. It’s just scenes of Sad Keanu, basically…

John Wick is alone except for his vintage hot rod and a puppy thoughtfully gifted to him by his late wife. So when the entitled, oblivious son of a Russian crime boss takes a fancy to his car, steals it, and kills the puppy, leaving him completely alone, what does he do? Why, he goes back to his life as the best professional assassin ever, letting nothing stand between him and his doomed target. (I mean, you know it’s a revenge plot, right?)

Gone are the days when noir was black and white and grey; here you’ve got grey, sure, but also yellows, reds, blues, and greens. It’s slick and modern and moody. I guess the stylization is a big reason the violence was not unenjoyable. There’s a lot of death, but it’s not a lot of senseless grunting and bloody messes. It feels clever. More than that, it feels just. It’s also got some rather funny deadpan moments that keep it from feeling too heavy.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/john-wick/id928911988

See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS.

Continue reading John Wick (2014)