Movie Round-up: Recent Movies that I’ve Seen (June 2019)

Apple TV at home
Image Source: http://www.premiumhollywood.com/2018/12/17/the-benefits-of-watching-movies-at-home/

I’ve seen two movies over the past two weeks. I don’t really have enough to say about them both to write a full mini-movie review, so I thought I’d just talk briefly about them in a single post. Unlike some other content that I’ve drafted (but may never see the light of day), this post isn’t really scholarly or high-brow. It’s just me talking about movies that I’ve seen recently.

Henry V

Image Source: https://www.amazon.com/Henry-V-Kenneth-Branagh/dp/079284615X

This is a movie that came on PBS during my 2nd year in college at U. T. Knoxville, but I wasn’t able to see through to the end because it would have went past 12:00 am and I had a ton of library books (UTK Library) due and I would have been hit with a massive fine. So I begrudgingly left the movie in the middle and didn’t get to see the resolution to go and turn in the books. Well, I finally got to see it through to the end a couple of weeks ago. I was looking for something to watch on Amazon Prime a couple of weeks ago and I saw that this movie was available for streaming, so I decided to watch (& finish) it this time. It is a stirring as I remember and it also does a a great job of adapting Shakespeare’s words and works to the screen. I like the narrator of the piece and his contemporary dress along with the way he sets the stage, but of course the showstopper is Kenneth Branagh, and his performance is amazing in this film. I’m glad that I was finally able to complete my viewing of the film as it was as good as I remembered it to be as I was watching it.

14 Blades

Image Source: https://www.amazon.com/14-Blades-Import-allemand/dp/B003Y98CZO

After watching the “drama” that was Henry V, I wanted something a little lighter for the next movie, so I went to my old standby–a martial arts movie. While these can sometimes be serious, usually they tend to be, if not downright comedic, a little on the lighter side with a combination of outrageous action combined with a storyline that (for the most part) is played seriously and not for laughs. I consider martial arts movies as “ligther” fare for the most part, however.

I couldn’t decide on what to watch, so I just chose one (mostly) at random: 14 Blades. What I didn’t realize that it was an early work (I think) of Donnie Yen, one of my favorite martial artists outside of Jackie Chan. Donnie Yen is a more “serious” martial actor than Jackie Chan is (and that just means that Donnie tends to go for more “dramatic” roles than “comedic” roles). I like them both, just for different reasons. I’ve “seen” more movies that Jackie has done (nearly all of his old collection), but I “own” more of Donnie’s movies (all of the Ip Man movies and Kung Fu Killer).

I enjoyed the movie–it was a standard martial arts movie. There were places were it was very good and there places where the storytelling was too “on-the-nose,” but overall I liked it, and the fact that I got to see a performance by Donnie Yen was just a great bonus. It took its subject fairly seriously (maybe a little more serious than I was wanting), but still it was a fun ride and I really enjoyed watching it.

Sidney

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Book Haul for June 2019

Several Fantasy novels displayed on a table with the spines and titles facing the viewer.
Image Source: https://www.nosegraze.com/january-2018-book-haul-wrap-up/

It is about halfway through the month and I realized that I hadn’t yet talked about the books that I bought for this month. I bought two books from McKay’s Used Book Store, a local used book store in the TN area (they may have stores elsewhere, but I don’t think so). I really prefer our local Friends of the Library book sale (the proceeds go back to help fund library events). I think I remarked on this previously, but as a child, I used to get an allowance and it allowed me to get approximately 2 books per month (paperback novels were about 3.95 on average, rising to 4.95, then to 5.95 at the end of my childhood).

Movies, Edited by Gilbert Adair

Film strip on a purple background framed by a gray border on the left and right sides.
Image Source: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/524993.Movies?ac=1&from_search=true

Movies, Gilbert Adair (Ed.), (ISBN 0141180846)

This is an edited collection of essays dealing with movies. I bought it because I really wanted to get more invested in my “specialization” field of film. While I’ll probably never be a “true” cinephile, I do love movies and (before I started the PhD program), I tried very hard to watch a film every week–either through Netflix or through Blu-Rays. The essays in the book run the gamut from theory, the pioneering aspects of movies, to the movie-going experience and even creating. It is a fairly large book (447 pages), but the essays (a least the ones that I’ve read so far) are fairly short (3-5 pages). I’d love to say that I’m going to finish the book this month, but chances are good that its going to take me at least two months to truly finish it. So, far I’m reading the theorizing section, but what I’ve read so far is fairly interesting.

It was the back cover blurb that caught my eye: “At the turn of the millennium cinema permeates all of our lives. From the Lumiere brothers’ first public film screening at the end of the nineteenth century to the technical wizardry at the end of the twentieth, it has both recorded and created our history. Its images and icons are part of our collective consciousness. We are all film buffs now.” In so many ways, this is true. While my lexicon is made up of the Force from Star Wars, today’s generation’s “Force” is J. K. Rowlings’s Harry Potter films. Those are the touchstone films that the newest generation understand and can reference–there “force” is the “Dementors” as I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of something “wraith-like” being described as looking like a “Dementor.” Films, do indeed, permeate our culture and are worthy to be studied.

Digital Fantasy Painting by Micheal Burns

A woman with a halter top and gun speaking into a communicator of some kind with two space ships at the top and bottom of the image and there is a warrior holding up a shining sword in the bottom left hand corner.
Image Source: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21093633-digital-fantasy-painting?ac=1&from_search=true

Collins Digital Fantasy Painting by Michael Burns (ISBN 0007160038)

This is a book that I picked up on a bit of a lark. There was another book that I wanted, but that book was far more expensive than I wanted to pay at the moment, so I got this one instead. Now, anyone who knows me realizes that art (outside of words) is not one of my strengths. I see the images in my mind, but (as we know from my writing), I often get frustrated when I can’t duplicate the images exactly on to paper. Now magnify that frustration by a factor of 10 when I try to do art. What I see so clearly in my mind, doesn’t even come close to being replicated by my fingers and it’s so infuriating that I can’t reproduce it. I did do a stint in the 11th and 12th grades where I tried to work on my artistic abilities, but the progress was so slow that I realized that, not only would it take years to progress to any decent sort of ability, but also that it would probably take away time from writing and becoming a better writer, so I slowly let the idea of art fade.

So why did I pick up this book? Well, it at least gives me insight into the processes and ideas and techniques that real artists use to create their works, especially in the “new” digital arena. Add to the fact that these are fantasy works and it was almost a no-brainer. The factor that cinched it for me, however, was the fact that there was a section on creating “maps” for fantasy worlds. As a fan of maps and a hopeful novelist one day, I feel that creating maps is something that I can do artistically. Some of my earliest “works of art” were hand-drawn maps of various countries for school “reports” about those countries. Having a book that gives me concrete techniques for doing something that I used to do as a child pretty much sealed the deal. I’ve started the book, but haven’t gotten that far. The book is short, however, and at 160 pages (many with illustrations), this is one that I do feel that I can finish sometime this month.

My goal is to get 1-2 books each month (like I did as a child). Since I probably will only finish one of these two books this month, next month might be a chance to get that more expensive book that I saw (if it is still there) so as not to get more books than I can read (I have too many unread books now, so I don’t need any more). Still, hopefully next month I can update you on 1-2 more books that I’ve added to my collection! Have a great weekend!

Sidney

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Bumblebee Mini-Review

Movie Poster with BumbleBee and two lead characters beside the Golden Gate Bridge.

Over the Memorial Day Weekend, I saw the Transformers Prequel movie, Bumblebee, and thought I’d take a moment to write up my thoughts about it. I thought that it was a pretty fun movie, although I thought that it was a little small in its scope. I’ll try to keep this review spoiler free (although I might need to discuss certain elements to talk about in regards to other Transformers movies) so I can’t promise that this will be completely spoiler-free (I’ll try my best).

Not Sprawling, But Still Good

One of the things that I liked about the movie was that it was a more contained movie. While I liked the Transformers movies, the first one specifically, I found that the later movies were just a little too long and didn’t have the same narrative coherence as the earlier movies (especially the first one). In other words, the other movies had become bloated and a bit of a mess, while Bumblebee was much more of a conventional movie with a 3 Act structure. I think that this added in my enjoyment of the movie immensely as I felt that it allowed the characters to shine, especially in regards to their motivations–something that I think was lacking in other Transformers movies.

Not Quite Enough Action

So, if there’s one thing that I could fault the movie for, then it would be the fact that while there’s action in the movie, it doesn’t really have the level of action that I would like. While an action movie, some of the elements are very much cut down or minimized. The writers, while looking for characterization and humor, downplay the action of the piece and (for me) that really made it not as fun as it could have been.

For instance, the scene in which she is goaded into diving, but ultimate decides to not do it, while revealing character, is something that doesn’t really work for me–I think it could have been revealed in a different way.

Overall Grade: B-/C+

I liked the increased focus on characterization, but not at the expense of the action of the Transformers’ movies. While more intimate and character-focused, it also lost a lot of the grandeur of the original film. This is why I think I was always so resistant to focusing on character–too much on character and not enough on the plot can leave a movie (or story) that should feel “epic” as feeling underwhelming rather than truly epic.

Sidney

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Afrofuturism in Film

Afrofuturism movies: Unknown Movie, Black Panther, Get Out, and design for Afrofuturism.
Image Source: http://www.btglifestyle.com/blog/2018/03/12/afrofuturism-film/

I have a confession to make: I really like Afrofuturism in Films. That’s not much of an admission to you might say? Well, how’s this for one: I don’t really care for it in book form. I can tolerate it in its musical form, but the books have never really moved me in the way they seem to move others.

Why Not Books?

I think the reason is that the books tend to limit themselves far too much. Wait, let me qualify myself before I get myself into trouble. I may have mentioned that my uncle was a seminal presence in my literary life. He took me with him to the public library every month to check out books. Every month. While I had other interests besides fiction in terms of books that I checked out, fiction (specifically, science fiction and fantasy) were the primary genres that I engaged with as a reader (both in children’s books and in general fiction when I grew too old for children’s books). While my library didn’t buy “popular” materials at the time (or at least, not a lot of them), quite a few did end up in the collection as they received starred reviews in Library Journal or Booklist (which were the primary way books were ordered for the library back then). Now, I didn’t know this at the time and only found out that this was how books were decided on based on working there are seeing the process firsthand. However, surprisingly enough, two of the major writers that Afrofuturism has been formed around, Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, reviewed well and we had a fairly large (5+ books) collection of their work at any one time (usually closer to 6-7 books on the shelf at any one time). I would, from time to time, pick up a book from these two authors, but put it down again after reading the blubs on the back and the inside covers as they were always dealing with some social issue. I wanted galactic empires, world universe conquerors (like Thanos), spaceships, and heroism. While good in their own way, Afrofuturism stories were nothing like what I wanted to read.

Afrofuturism in Film

Not so for film. Even excluding Black Panther for the moment, the films of Will Smith in the 90s and early 2000s alone accounted for what I was missing from the books. Independence Day, I, Robot, I Am Legend, Men in Black, and heck, even Hancock, all are films that really show a diversity in subject and a grandness in scope that I felt was missing from the books by celebrated African American authors–and to be honest, in some ways, I still feel that they’re missing even today.

Based on my reading from Ytasha Womack’s Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi Film and Culture I think I figured out the reason: the films use Afrofuturism tropes as a secondary consideration and not part of the main plot, while the books make it part of the main plot and interweave everything (plot, character, setting, all of it) as part of the narrative. For me, that falls more under the category of Social Sci-Fi (a legitimate sub-category of Sci-Fi) that is rarely used these days. Social sci-fi deals with the underlying structures of society and how future societies deal with their societal problems. While you might think this is rife for exploration for science fiction, these types of narratives tend to feature very little in the way of plot and external factors. Much like the absolute worse things about Game of Thrones they focus more on inter-character/societal dynamics and interactions than they do with actual plot or motivating (external factors). For me, as a reader, I find these the types of narrative the most annoying and the most aggravating to get through.

Now one might argue that this is the purest expression of Afrofuturism, but I would argue that it is the opposite. Black Panther featured an external conflict (Killmonger), but in an Afrofuturistic context–does Wakanda hide its wealth and abilities from the world or does it have a greater responsibility? That question is not at the forefront of the movie, but it is answered by the characterization of the hero (T’Challa/Black Panther) and his plot of overcoming his challenge/driving question (can a “good man” be King). The Afrofuturistic elements emerge through the telling of a great narrative–the narrative isn’t “hijacked” to serve the purpose of developing an Afrofuturistic society.

Now, I will probably read one or two of the representative works for , Butler and Delany so as to say that I’ve at least “read” them, but I already know from past experience, I won’t like them very much. For me, Afrofuturism only works if you can weave a compelling story around it–just creating an Afrocenric setting and culture in the future that runs into some sort of internal cultural conflict just isn’t enough to get me excited about the genre.

Sidney

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Aquaman Review (No Spoilers!)

Aquaman Poster  -- Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) with Trident and Princess Mera (Amber Heard) both standing in waist high water.
Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquaman_(film)

Over the Easter holiday, I watched Warner Brother’s next big movie, Aquaman. I bought Justice League (both were on sale at iTunes), but I only had time to watch one and we decided on Aquaman as it was newer and better rated. I really liked it and felt that it was a fine addition to the comic book genre.

DC is “Darker” than Marvel

One of the things to remember is that DC, as a comics publisher, tends to publish “darker” storylines than Marvel in their heydey. Audiences reacted negatively to these darker storylines (see Batman vs Superman), but fans don’t realize that this is normal for the DC Universe. When DC tries to be jokey and fun (Justice League from what I’ve heard), they move out of their comfort zone. However, Aquaman is a nice balance between “light” and “dark.” There is enough humor and silliness to help the audience laugh and relieve tension and there is a fair bit of “darkness” in terms of the story and dramatic tension to drive the plot/characters forward.

DC Needs to Do More Solo Movies

Part of DC’s (DCEU’s) problem is that they see the success Marvel is having in the movie industry and they want the exact same success without having done the prep work. A lot of the MCEU’s success with their movies comes from successfully setting up two or three movies for their solo characters before moving on to their team-up movies. DC wants to jump straight into team-up movies without understanding that it is the solo movies that build up audience familiarity with the characters and makes them want to see them team-up and face off against a bigger (i.e., “world ending”) threat. They’ve done a good job with Wonder Woman (WW) and now Aquaman, but they really are going to have to understand that mega-billion dollar profits don’t come overnight and they’ve got to do the hard work of successfully putting out movie after movie with their solo characters before they even begin to match Marvel’s box office dominance.

Aquaman = Underwater Thor

So, too me, while the plot isn’t quite the same, much of the action and the plot reminds me of the Thor movies from Marvel, down to the no-good brother who would be king. Instead of the “arrogant King-in-Waiting” of Thor, you now have the “reluctant King-in-Waiting” in Aquaman. Unlike WW, the filmmakers for Aquaman play it safe and they don’t really say anything new in the genre. I’m currently rereading the Memory, Sorrow, Thorn by Tad Williams which is a Fantasy series from the mid-90s and early 2000s that has much the same set-up (at least in the initial book of the trilogy) and Aquaman says much the same thing (with many of the same beats) as this fantasy story told 20-25 years ago. WW, by contrast, had something new to say about the idea of femininity and how it was constructed (and reconstructed) in the WWI era. When your main characters comes from a society outside of the social conventions and mores of the time, you can then use that character to illustrate the inanities of said mores/conventions. Aquaman does none of this, but plays it safe and is a fun, but ultimately predictable, movie, hence the mixed reaction where some really loved it and some thought it was a step backwards from WW. Also, on a pure special effects level, some of the work is uneven. Quite a bit of it was good and transported you to another world, but some effects, especially some of the fighting effects which showed “sped up” motion, were distracting. Still, it was a fun movie that I enjoyed watching and, while not my favorite, still compared to some of the “lesser” Marvel movies.

Overall Grade: B

I should probably give it a B- if I’m honest, but I really like Jason Mamoa (I’ve liked him since his role as Ronon Dex on Stargate Atlantis (SGA). I know he’s on Game of Thrones, but as I dislike that show, I don’t really have any interest in his role there. I’m glad to see him “graduate” to movie roles as I really like what I saw on SGA. I also liked his costars, but I haven’t really seen the others in their other roles per se (Dafoe being the notable exception). Also, having been a fan of Superfriends and getting to see nods back to Aquaman’s powers from that show as well as his more recent graphic novel incarnation was a nice touch that boosted the score a little higher for me. Your mileage may vary from mind, but as I don’t have a dog in the Marvel vs DC “fighting fandoms,” I have to say that I enjoyed the movie for what it was–a fairly predictable superhero story with (mostly) above average special effects.

Sidney

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Great Actors in Small Roles: Claudia Black

Claudia Black (from Wikipedia entry)
Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudia_Black

So, I’m expanding this “series” just a little bit to also include under “appreciated” actors who I come across from all genres–not just film, as it had been previously. While, again, I won’t often call out many actors, there are just some who do a great job and don’t necessarily get the recognition they deserve.

One actor whose work I always love is Claudia Black. Having re-“rediscovered” her work in Farscape and having just recently finished the entire Stargate SG-1 series, in which guest stars towards the latter part of the series and becomes a series regular in the last season, I’ve really come to appreciate both her comedic timing and sense of the “ironic” in the characters that she plays.

Farscape

I’ll have a more in-depth review of the show later, but I really like the way Claudia Black imbues her character on the show, Aeryn Sun, with a sense of both sarcasm combined with deadly earnestness. Fitting of someone who was once a commando for the “enemy,” Claudia plays Aeryn with a physicality (and sometimes coldness) befitting of a military specialist. However, even after only about 4-5 episodes, I see the inventive wordplay and playfulness that is the embodiment of Vala (SG-1).

Uncharted

Many people may or may not know Claudia by sight, but most gamers (Playstation at least) know her for her roles in the Uncharted series. She plays Chloe Frazier, a treasure hunter and one-time old flame for the series protagonist Nathan Drake. While her roles were substantial in the games, I really felt the actress and the character come into her own with the release of the stand alone game Uncharted The Lost Legacy which featured two former supporting characters Chole Frazer and Nadine Ross as the lead characters in a new adventure. I thought the pain in which Black exhibited towards her father in some of the more emotionally charges scenes were outstanding and gave true insight into the character.

Stargate SG-1

One of my favorite characters on SG-1 was Vala, introduced as a “foil” to Daniel. While Vala is played as a far more humorous character than Aeryn, she can also have moments of seriousness, and even cold-blooded calculation, although Vala’s overriding conception is “fun.” Again, I really liked the way Claudia Black uses a “grin” to emphasize Vala’s playful demeanor which is reminscent of the way my own family used humor and sarcasm in a playful way, using our facial features and body language to diffuse/disarm any attempt to harm. I think this is why I don’t find “teasing” funny in real life because, in real life, “teasing” is really meant to cause harm to the person–whereas in Vala’s paradigm (and mine), teasing is just a way of playing and being fun without being stupid/doing stupid things. Without the correct gestures and body language, sarcasm and glib comments can do more harm than good.

While Claudia Black may not be a “household name” in many homes, I really think she should be as her ability to play both fun and playful characters along with characters with an emotional edge or more depth make her an actor that I enjoy watching (or listening to for her voice work) everytime I encounter something that she’s starring in.

A handclap of praise to Claudia Black for such wonderfully diverse characters–and for bringing a sense of “fun” and “wonder” back to adventure and science fiction.

Sidney

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Ant-Man and Wasp Mini-Review (No Spoilers)

Marvel Studios ANT-MAN AND THE WASP..L to R: The Wasp/Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) ..Photo: Ben Rothstein..©Marvel Studios 2018
Marvel Studios ANT-MAN AND THE WASP..L to R: The Wasp/Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) ..Photo: Ben Rothstein..©Marvel Studios 2018
Image Source: http://time.com/5327169/ant-man-and-the-wasp-review/

I liked the movie, though not as much as the original Ant-Man movie. I thought the movie was entertaining and interesting. It had some action (most of it was back-loaded, however) that was really good and fun, but the beginning of the movie can be a bit of a slog to get through–especially, if you’re not a Marvel movie aficionado.

Character Over Action

So this movie is one of the reasons why I like “plot” over “character” because they (the filmmakers) take too long in setting up the various characters, their current backstories, and motivations before really getting to the heart of the story. While I enjoyed this, it made the first half of the movie seem more like a typical Hollywood “rom-com,” than a true Marvel movie. While there are “rom-com” (rometic comedy) elements in the original Ant-Man, they were expertly balanced with the heist elements and the discovery of the character’s “powers.” Here, everything seems unbalanced, and character/jokes/”rom-com” elements dominate until the “plot” kicks in gear about half way through.

A Ghost of a Chance

I liked the villain in this one (“Ghost”) and I liked the actor playing her role. I just think that Ghost’s backstory needed work–it never really clear as to why she had to do what she needed in order to survive (vague here to avoid spoilers). There’s an element of Star Trek like “jargon” in the explanation that seemed to serve the plot (to make her the villain) rather than her character (she has to do this thing or else). The filmmakers present it this way in dialogue (that her character has to act this way to survive and has become a “monster” because of it), but it still felt as the motivation was a bit of “hand-waving” on the filmmakers’ part to justify her actions in the beginning of the movie. Had the motivation been better and had the action started sooner, I think I might have liked it more.

Ghost’s motivations aren’t the only things that don’t make sense. There are several scenes, played for jokes, that seem out of place in the overall plot–the “school” scene, in particular, is one of those scenes. Yes, its cute in a mildly amusing way, but does the movie really have time to digress in that way? For me, not really, and it could have been cut (or included as an “extra scene” for an “extended cut” of the movie.

Overall Grade: B-

This one could have been outstanding, but slow pacing and a confusing villain motivation really hampered my enjoyment for this one. I still like it, but it is on the lower end of the spectrum of Marvel movies for me. One thing that kept it from being a C is one of the “stingers” at end of the movie was really well done! That alone bumped it up into the above average category for me.