No World for Tomorrow

Austin-based independent animator Don Hertzfeldt has come to a point in his career where he can basically do no wrong by me. At worst, his movies are shallow (and admittedly sadistic in a hilarious way) amusements like Billy’s Balloon and Wisdom Teeth. At best, he has reached the heights minimalist masterpieces with the hand-drawn animation form from his angrily critical Rejected to his unexpectedly ambitious emotional rollercoaster ride of his sole feature* It’s Such a Beautiful Day. Even his fucking Simpsons intro is inspired. And of course, his last 5 years have been spent exploring the potentials of digital animation to translate his previously beloved stick figure style against otherwise pointedly computer generated imagery or principles communicating unexpectedly bottomless existential journeys of fears and thoughts with the World of Tomorrow short film series, the first two entries of which are not only masterpieces on the level of Rejected and It’s Such a Beautiful Day… but may in fact even surpass them. So of course, World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime was immediately my most anticipated movie of the year the moment its existence was announced and as of this writing I have watched it four times (the fact that it’s ONLY 4 times in a year is an accomplishment of serious discipline, honestly).

So like I said, Hertzfeldt can do no wrong by me. But it can take a minute for me to adjust to see what he’s doing more clearly and I have to say that if World of Tomorrow Episode 3 remains in my top three movies of 2020 when the time comes to wrap it up… it’s still something of a disappointment to me in ways I wasn’t expecting. The first area being how these shorts lose a lot of humanity by the absence of Winona Mae, Hertzfeldt’s Scottish niece who at the ages of 4 and 5 had been recorded by Hertzfeldt to voice the central child Emily of the first two episodes while the narrative was constructed around her aimless ramblings. By this point, Mae is now 11 years old and as wonderfully creative and imaginative as I’m sure an 11 year old could be, I imagine it loses the spontaneity of her exclamations the way that pre-schoolers have hardly any filter at all. So sad to say but understandable as it is, Emily Prime is nowhere to be seen in this entry and it is doubtful she will ever return unless Hertzfeldt decides to wildly change the course of this series a second time.

For the first time, what we have instead as a subject is David Prime (who spends most of the short silent but I suspect an uncredited Don Hertzfeldt is the voice behind a hilarious gag that I won’t spoil), a character whom we have never met but whose clones we have encountered throughout the first two episodes in several ways we knew and ways we did not know until this episode. When we meet David, he’s an already well into the cold and isolated future premonitioned in the first two movies, but when Emily 9 (as in the ninth generation clone of Emily voiced like all of Emily’s clones with impeccable deadpan by Julia Pott) has met David, he was a toddler upon whom she sent a long dormant neural message that did not activate until he reached a certain mature age and needless to say… being confronted with this deliberately packed memory is overwhelming to David. As we’ve seen in the first World of Tomorrow, one of Emily’s clones had met one of David’s clones and the two had fallen in love. Many of Emily’s subsequent clones have attempted to find ways that would facilitate a reunion between the clone’s memories and the man they remember having strongly romantic feelings for. Emily 9 is the one that landed at leaving a complex and overlarge memory/message for David that sets him off on a vast journey that ends up requiring him to sacrifice a whole lot for something that makes his compulsion feel more obligated than organic.

Which gets us far enough in the narrative to acknowledge the second thing outside of Mae’s absence that gave me a minute to be on World of Tomorrow Episode Three‘s wavelength: this is by far the most cynical and vicious of the three episodes. The first two episodes approached its cold future with more of a sad disappointment, but this one portrays David’s arduous journey across space (and not necessarily time but… it is something passed through) and within unknown planets with an understanding that David doesn’t particularly know what he’s looking for. He just frequently sees the face of this woman implying that some future version of him was a soulmate of a past version of her – a vision that already costs him literally, he has to uninstall skills to watch more of the message by way of an obnoxious HUD interface. It’s a pretty pointed tale about how dangerous and malformed love can be. Not to mention given the things David goes through to land where he and Emily 9 hope to meet, this is certainly the most jokingly sadistic thing Hertzfeldt has made since Wisdom Teeth on the basis of that cosmic romantic uncertainty.

Which is a treatment of love as a concept that I’m happy to see many movies, but it does come as a shock to the system within a series of shorts that didn’t feint in that direction before (though it did maintain a pessimistic outlook on the future and all its marvels). Just as well, since Hertzfeldt has by now stated he will continue to be making so many more of these shorts and it was going to have to shift gears at some point in order to remain fresh. More importantly, it felt to me in the span of watching the first two World of Tomorrows that Hertzfeldt had pushed the envelope on marrying his stick figure minimalist aesthetic with imagery that could only be created through computers. If this World of Tomorrow Episode 3 hoped to justify itself in any manner, I thought it would have to be in evolving that visual style further than Episode 2 ended.

It gets there and then some. Episode 3 is undeniably the most ambitious and visually complex film of Hertzfeldt’s entire career and it lands every technical leap it takes. First in its depiction of the future on an intimate level with the first scene, using its sense of depth to a frame to add more clutter to the living area of David and then compounding that through his HUD view – which also foreshadows yet another new toy for Episode 3 – as one of my favorite gag turn out to be the desktop crowding of his view by way of pop-ups (one of many prices Emily 9’s message forces him to pay). This is particularly aided by the sound design doing more than any other Hertzfeldt film to be as irritating as possible in ways that make sense within this world, whether it’s holograms that scream at you or the buzziness of David’s guidance system. Then there is the expansive way that Hertzfeldt defines the planets and areas that David and other characters live in or explore without removing any of the bold color (although another favorite gag of mine plays with the color) and defined lines that made up the previous films. This is, in any case, the most physical of the World of Tomorrows with hardly any room for abstraction in the story it wants to tell (though Taylor Barron returns as a visual effects artist and the only other crew member besides Hertzfeldt). It’s the first of the World of Tomorrows to actually interact and create this world rather than approximation of it based on the workings of someone else’s mind. Which probably ends up being why this feels so much less psychologically complex than its predecessors, but that’s a fair trade to me.

Then there’s how that depth finally gets to Hertzfeldt playing with the z-axis and the camera’s perspective to these characters in ways that give them more dimension than they ever had before. The teaser shot that announced this movie’s existence happens to give away one of the most impressive moments of character animation in Hertzfeldt’s career (with the only other contender being the climactic ballet in Episode 2) as we watch David from behind stumble during his wall on the remote planet where another piece of Emily 9’s message is and it is smooth as butter to watch his limbs swing around and his square body have more volume to it than any stick figure before. It also allows more camera angles to be utilized now that Hertzfeldt knows that he can actually animate these characters from those angles in ways that make spatial sense while still finding moments to play with their flat 2-dimensional origins.

Such a moment being a narrative revelation that I want to keep a surprise as much as possible that ends up being an avenue for shots and images to have layers that look more like filters of previous drawings from the series. We learn late in the film that there is a means that facilitates imagery that resembles cels but much murkier and unstable (similar to a technique used in It’s Such a Beautiful Day but with less motion) and how the characters play with this is one of the darker revelations within the whole story. And yet this technique is not something necessarily introduced to us that far in nor exclusively used for darkness or comic value, as the HUD point of view shots already allow us to see the world sometimes through that filtered screen with the same separation as David and particularly one of the earlier shots happens to be unexpectedly soothing and beautiful as David is faced with an old childhood nightmare on his HUD and closes his eyes. There is a lot more tonal versatility to these new techniques on Hertzfeldt’s part than expected for a short that mostly retain a certain group of emotional states.

So there is a lot that Hertzfeldt brings new to the table and practically everything about World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime does feel brand-new in a way that is exhilarating. It’s just that it did take me a couple more watches to get that and I still don’t know that I’m calibrated to love this the way that I did the first two. Still perhaps by the time Episode Four is made, the episodes will connect in a clearer way and I’ll be able to feel ready for yet another exciting divergence from the things that came before. I’ll be ready for the things to come.

*OK, it’s technically a short film trilogy but having originally watched them as separate short films… I find it just impossible to return to that presentation again since Hertzfeldt combined them into one feature. They just segue so well into each other.

Hokey Religions and Ancient Weapons Are No Match for a Good Blaster at Your Side, Kid.

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I don’t think I would be wrong in identifying Solo: A Star Wars Story as the safest picture the franchise has ever seen, but it’s still a bizarre statement to make in the face of its remarkably disappointing financial run on top of other matters. Namely, it is very easy for one to ask the question “who is this for?” regarding Solo, not necessarily because we don’t know who the target audience for this four-quadrant blockbuster is. It’s because frankly nobody asked for it and the response to its announcement has always been very muted reluctance at most. That it’s doing dire work at the box office is more a shock simply because you don’t normally expect “bomb” to appear in the same sentence as “Star Wars” rather than because excitement was in the air.

Anyway, I called Solo safe and I’m sticking by it. After all, it is directed – after much internal strife – by Ron Howard, a director especially known for his lack of a characteristic style unless you call being unable to smooth out an episodic narrative structure a style. And Howard reliably performs that dysfunction here, though he’s not helped by any means with father-and-son team Lawrence and Jon Kasdan’s screenplay. It’s a script that was clearly built off of “well, we have several checkpoints we will have to arbitrarily connect the dots to” in regards to the early life of breakout Star Wars character, the cynical smuggler Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich): his meeting of hairy Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and slick gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the famous Kessel Run performed in 12 parsecs, the acquisition of his famous ship Millennium Falcon, and a hell of a lot of time devoted to the shiny die that you may or may not have noticed the hanging on the Falcon’s dashboard in the original trilogy.

None of these were particularly things we needed to see and yet they’re spread out in the screenplay over the length of three years in the young man’s life. By which I mean that the first quarter happens where we see Han and his thief partner Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempt to escape the grasp of their shrimp gangster overseer Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt) but Qi’ra’s quick re-capture leads Han to try to join the Imperial armed forces in the hopes of earning enough to return to the industrial planet of Corellia and break Qi’ra away from its clutches followed by a big leap in with the title card “THREE YEARS LATER” and the rest of the movie just continues on from there in the form of clunky chapters – a train heist, a mine heist/droid revolt, and a good ol’ bunch of fourth act showdowns – sifted through without anything resembling structural elegance.

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But already Star Wars fans come to a brief roadblock on how to take Solo: A Star Wars Story – they’ve turned Han, previously an ambiguous mercenary archetype with little more to him than that, into a young romantic driven by lost love. For indeed, his desire to reunite with Qi’ra is the driving motivation behind every decision he makes for the rest of the film as he and Chewie tag along with a motley crew of thieves made up of wise quickshooter Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his lover Val (Thandie Newton), and their four-armed alien pilot Rio (Jon Favreau). And that romanticism is a pretty bold shift in characterization to make for one of the most beloved characters in one of the most popular franchises, especially coming from Lawrence Kasdan who is a long-time resident of the Star Wars creative force since 1980. And I have to admit the likeliness that original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were intending to take this sincere earnestness a little more tongue-in-cheek than intended interests me much more than the predictable emotional beats Howard hops into with straight-faced director after Lord and Miller were unceremoniously fired*. But there is a bright side to this: for one thing, it makes it a lot easier to shed any previous associations with the icon and approach the story as its own thing which I’d assume is the best line of inquiry for any Star Wars fan that doesn’t just go to these movies for the unbearably winking fan service (which is present in Solo, including an overabundance of sequel hooks littered all throughout the final minutes. One surprise character cameo only pushes the Disney Star Wars productions into becoming a new Marvel Cinematic Universe).

It also relieves Alden Ehrenreich of any need to attempt mimicry of his famed predecessor Harrison Ford, instead of inputting his personal charm and effortless boyishness as he leads a pretty bubbly ensemble. Glover himself is attempting mimicry of Billy Dee Williams and is getting it right on target. Suotamo, in his second go-round in that fur suit, has already gotten a good hand at the body language Chewie demands while Harrelson is another stand-out in a nitty gritty reluctant mentor, Newton gives tension as an aggressive moll, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge brings excitement as a very vocally conscious droid. Honestly, the only weak links are the inert Clarke and the unbearable Favreau (who is saddled with the most unspeakable word sandwiches sold as “jokes”) and otherwise the cast is the biggest reason to bother with Solo: A Star Wars Story.

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I would say it is the world-building as well. For sure, there is a pretty wonderful amount of production design going about, like a giant luxury spaceship doubling as the den of bloodthirsty gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, replacing Michael K. Williams sadly) or the implication of Corellia’s involvement in the creation of the galaxy’s fleet of spaceships. And in some cases, that world-building has a full-on involvement in the spectacle: that train heist is easily the best moment in the whole film, where the bandits are on a mini-Snowpiercer unstoppable snow locomotive and stepping into it from different angles dealing with different obstacles, cut with utter frenzy by Pietro Scalia. And the Kessel Run sequence is no slouch either, utilizing the looming entity of the Empire as a fire under the ass of a chase sequence trying to use the freewheeling physicality of space for comic book pulp.

Again, I WOULD say it’s the world-building, except that Solo: A Star Wars Story heartbreakingly looks like hell as some idiot shot the film’s interiors with a murky lack of lighting obscuring characters and a sense of blocking that doesn’t seem aware of the objects in the frame and dared to slap Bradford Young’s name to this. Chewbacca’s entrance is the worst of these things, where the very “Hey it’s Chewie!” close-up where he roars into the camera and is “recognized” is botched by having not lighting on his face at all. It’s just watching undefined shadows and blotches on the screen occasionally*.

The concept of a space opera that just can’t bother looking good, especially with one of the best cinematographers working today in its arsenal, just feels offensive. It is the least a movie as forgettable as Solo could do and it nearly gets so well done with imaginative set, costume, creature, and CGI designs all around but none of that means much if you can barely see it. It doesn’t register a lot of confidence on its makers’ part. Somebody must have told them the odds.

*Between Lord/Miller getting booted for making a comedy and the burial of Star Wars: Detours, Lucasfilm is starting to feel like fan service gatekeepers.
*No less a reliable name than Bilge Ebiri swears it looked better in its Cannes premiere and it’s the theater projections that are messing up and I sincerely believe his experience except… y’know projectors don’t suddenly retroactively light sets and actors.

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Nothing’s Gonna Change My World

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It is a relatively good thing, I think, that I saw Luc Besson’s summer space adventure Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets before I was able to start reading the original Franch comic series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières by the name of Valerian et Laureline*. It is a brilliant and wonderful work of pulp artistry and adventure storytelling that Valerian certainly lives up to in more than a few ways, but also stands as the kind of visual swashbuckler comic literature I wish I had access to as a child. That I read it after seeing the movie being a good thing is due to how little the characters within the comic series – dashing handsome and tall Valerian and red-haired ingénue from the Middle Ages Laureline – do not at all look similar to Besson’s leads, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. I like to hope that wouldn’t have bothered me, but just to be sure, the fact that I saw Valerian before reading them ensured that the only reason I’d fell the leads are miscast is because of their performance.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a damn great movie in my eyes, regardless of what the detractors of the movie think. It is more than a bit likely to show up on my top 20 of the year and it’s easily my favorite space opera of essentially the four major ones we’ve received this year (the others being Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and sadly Star Wars: The Last Jedi in that preferred order). And yet the one thing I can’t find myself to argue with detractors about (and indeed there are plenty) is that the leads don’t work. Less so Delevingne, who takes command of every moment like her character’s name wasn’t removed from the title with intelligence but would probably do much better with a co-star that she could actually have romantic chemistry with. It’s more DeHaan, not only being unable to pass for dashing anything but instead looking like the son of Peter Lorre in all those baggy eyes and delivering his macho lines like he’s barely out of breath. Lines that, mind you, are essentially a space soldier harassing his partner and only the best kind of screwball chemistry would make it feel less objectionable. DeHaan, an actor I overall love and want to see in more movies (who definitely helped with this year’s earlier A Cure for Wellness) is not that actor.

An out-of-place lead actor is certainly not something I could hold a moviegoer accountable for being unable to ignore, but in truth my love for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is one that supersedes all of that just as much as my love of Star Wars does likewise. If I ever go to watch a space opera because I want compelling substance, please slap me in the face because something’s wrong with me. Valerian delivers an overwhelming amount of world-building in its gaudy biome designs of different regions in its titular International Space Station (we witness the growth of the original Space Station into this wondrous cornucopia of alien cultures and civilizations in an opening montage to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that even detractors find lovely, slowly having several of Besson’s usual collaborators like Louis Leterrier and Olivier Megaton welcome several disarming but lovely extra-terrestrials in the spirit of galactic brotherhood).

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Hell, the moment that the trailer featured a long-shot sequence of Valerian crashing his way past walls separating several different environments and habitats, a variety of smooth surfaces, bold various colors, and dazzling lighting servicing several the kind of cartoonish but ambitious and engrossing CGI convinced me I was going to watch this movie in 3D and the second scene in the movie inviting us to explore a shiny shimmering beach planet where the very skin of its silver natives glows and pearls flow like water before showing off the depth of field by having a violent and explosive invasion occur is when I was certain I made the right decision.

See, I don’t really have a problem with Besson’s screenplay. It’s certainly slightly less stupid than Lucy (which I also stan for) and has a certain subplot that involves a detour introducing us to a wonderfully hammy turn by Ethan Hawke and a crazy fun outfit-switching dance performance by Rihanna (and whatever dance double they had)**, but its main purpose is to utilize the Ambassador of Shadows storyline into the making of a world-building adventure from setpiece to setpiece – here’s a trans-dimensional bazaar where Valerian has to interact with one dimension while inhabiting another to extract an item followed by a monster chase, here’s deep sea dive filled with imaginative sea life before Laureline has to wear some brainsucking jellyfish as a helmet, here’s a Gilliam-esque throne room for a couple of laughs while troll-esque aliens feed their picky king, and so forth. The context isn’t what has to make these experiences joyous to me, Hugues Tissandier’s construction of these sets and creatures does more than enough to do so and then Alexandre Desplat’s sparkling epic score lifts the film to ethereal heights (and it’s not even his best score of the year given The Shape of Water), the sort of spectacle driven cinema that gets butt in the movies to begin with.

Listen, if something as ridiculous looking and sounding as Valerian was not going to be your thing, that’s alright. I stan for the likes of Jupiter Ascending so it could hardly be unexpected that I walked out of it feeling my summer was made. It’s utterly shallow, but it’s also transfixingly vibrant. It doesn’t have as comforting an audience surrogate as Bruce Willis in Besson’s previous The Fifth Element, but if you’re willing to just go for the ride without anyone to relate to, you will still find yourself sucked in. You may or may not have to go into Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets with a very specific idea of what you look for in movies, but luckily it provides exactly what I look for: a brilliant living expansion of worlds and domains for which we can witness setpieces unlike anything we ever have seen before and possibly won’t see since.

*I will go on the record as to pointing out that I find removing Laureline from the title of the film to be a dirty fucking move, especially since I think the argument can be made that Laureline has more screentime overall.
**Between this, Girlhood, and American Honey, movies are really trying to make me overlook my dislike for Rihanna’s music and turn me into a fan of hers. It’s working.

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Ragnarok n’ Roll

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Now I know what you’re thinking. “Oh no, STinG isn’t in love with the new Taika Waititi-directed film the way he wanted to and has to reckon with whether or not it was as huge a disappointment as he expected.” How did we end up here? Well, it’s kind of a long story.

I was expecting a Taika Waititi movie. Well, that’s not such a long story after all, never mind.

And to be fair, Thor: Ragnarok – the third film in the Thor series and 17th in the gigantic Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise – is not not a Waititi film. But it’s interrupted by the side of it that’s a Kevin Feige-produced MCU film. There’s no reason to hold that against Thor: Ragnarok since the result is still roundly the best Thor film and the out-and-out funniest MCU picture in their whole lineage, but the fact that it’s unfortunately short bursts and portions does leave me a bit disappointed with the result.

For one thing, it takes its sweet ass time getting to the good stuff. The previous Thor film, The Dark World, and the second Avengers film, Age of Ultron, left so many threads open ended that co-writers Franco Escamilla, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost had no choice but to address and resolve from square one the threat of Ragnarok – the end of Norse home world Asgard to be brought by demon Surtur (mo-capped by Waititi, voiced by Clancy Brown) – and the absence of Thor’s father and ubergod Odin (Anthony Hopkins) replaced by Thor’s trickster step-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who has now reached the sort of casual obligatory tone in playing this character as Robert Downey Jr. in playing Iron Man), neither of which are the main conflict of the story for our thundergod himself (Chris Hemsworth). For a movie where Waititi claimed in an interview that his modus operandi was to ignore the previous (and frankly) mediocre Thor films, Ragnarok is certainly happy to do a lot of clean-up.

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Now granted, the movie is still joyful and funny at points, as Hopkins does a hilarious job imitating Hiddleston and we witness a cult of personality formed around Loki with a wonderful play featuring three brilliant cameos I must remain mum over for the poor souls who haven’t seen Ragnarok yet. But the fact that we also get the obligatory MCU character cameo before Odin can proper introduced us to the villain in a very clunky monologue is quite frankly annoying and a nuisance in storytelling.

The villain herself is Hela – Odin’s firstborn daughter and the goddess of death – and played by the brilliant Cate Blanchett in full ham and scenery-chewing glory commanding every fucking shot she gets to appear in effortlessly and the sad thing is that Hela is the only reason I enjoyed the Hela/Asgard end of the story. Because quickly after her appearance the film splits based on her expulsion of Thor and Loki and her subsequent conquest of Asgard and attempts to expand her realm being thwarted by the brave Bifrost guardian Heimdall (Idris Elba). That’s her side of the story and it’s mostly just a reminder that evil stuff is happening that Thor must stop, while meanwhile, Taika Waititi is making a Taika Waititi movie (that just so happens to be a low-key adaptation of the “Planet Hulk” story) on the industrial trash planet Sakaar where Thor and Loki have landed.

Ruled by the flamboyant Jeff Goldblum Grandmaster (but it may as well just be recognized as Jeff Goldblum himself), Sakaar turns out to be home to a vicious gladiator deathmatch tournament that Thor is shanghaied into participating in against the grand champion: The Incredible Hulk himself (Mark Ruffalo). And this reunion is the catalyst to Thor’s attempts in building a team to save Asgard with Hulk and his troubled scientist alter-ego Bruce Banner, the comfortably lucky Loki, an alcoholic and disillusioned former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, best in show that’s not Goldblum and a born action star), and a failed revolutionary yet infectiously friendly rock monster gladiator named Korg (Taika Waititi) and his robotic sidekick Meek.

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Sakaar isn’t necessarily the stuff of brilliant visual craftsmanship – the lighting is mostly as muted as any other MCU film beyond a mindblowing flashback sequence and this is not the best effects work of the franchise – but the physical design of it is absolutely fun to look at in all of its shapes and mounds and kitchiness, full of a mix of tones between bazaar and industrial and nightclub. It’s clear that Waititi himself walked into this production ready to make a space opera and he sure as hell gave his all, providing a wonderfully colorful and bouncy world full of a variety of bipedal alien races. All of which tuned into a vibrant weirdo tone that takes a few leafs out of the 1980s thanks to Goldblum’s absolute relaxed rock star of a performance and Mark Mothersbaugh’s techno epic of a score. And with a hangout atmosphere courtesy of Waititi’s wonderfully amiable brand of humor, best personified in Korg’s lovable presence even when in the middle of a fight trying to act polite. It’s exactly the MCU film I was waiting for and unfortunately it only lasts as far as the movie spends time in Sakaar.

This is not to say Asgard is a slouch in design, but Waititi’s heart is so obviously in Sakaar and not Asgard that returning to Hela’s storyline where she has literally no momentum thanks to Heimdall’s efforts feels a severe buzzkill to what is otherwise an extremely fun movie. That doesn’t override the fact that the sum of it all IS that is a poppy concoction that’s even able to make the best of the usually unbearable Hemsworth, who proves so much more capable at comedy than he is at drama. Nor is it unclear that there are full consequences to Ragnarok, ones that feel a lot more permanent than the last few times in the MCU where it seemed like consequences of Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Winter Soldier were just brushed aside. Whatever obligatory MCU drama we have to push through, it’s rewarded by a much more engaging film than at least half of the MCU preceding it and while it seems like a good illustration of how studio interference obstructs with auteurism, the biggest thing I took away from Thor: Ragnarok is that we should give Waititi money for science fiction and fantasy extravaganzas that have really personable talking rock creatures in a Kiwi accent.

P.S. Rachel House from Hunt for the Wilderpeople (my favorite Waititi film) is also in this playing no less a psychopath than her character there and I’m rooting for her to be in, like, everything now.

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Cove-Nah-nt

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When I actually look back on the expectations of Alien: Covenant, I wonder if it just had way too much to carry and if I might feel better for it with that in mind. Doubtful, because I’m thinking right now about how it is trying to be a successor to Alien AND a successor to Prometheus – both movies I like very much (fuck the Prometheus haters) – and I still am kind of disappointed by it. It cannot be both of those things whatsoever, something I think the evident mountain of cut footage by Ridley Scott (who directed all three movies I just mentioned) shows his awareness of because of how very dissonant both movies are. Prometheus is a philosophical musing and Alien is blunt horror film with no room for thought. There are great moments of Alien: Covenant that could function for both the scary monster movie genre film and for the introspective treatise on the cost of creation and meeting your maker and so it’s upsetting to have to choose between one or the other, but it’s a very obviously unbalanced mesh of ideas that cannot share the same movie and if I had to pick one: I wish Alien: Covenant were the shallower mad scientist/slasher horror movie it became in the later part of itself.

What makes me lean that way is so much of what is aesthetically great about Alien: Covenant would be better suited for genre filmmaking than existential writing: the production design by Chris Seagers full of gothic dark edges of ancient towers and surrounding ruins, industrial weary space station rooms, and chillingly light green exteriors (those colors especially brought out by cinematographer Darius Wolski). There’s an interior candlelit set that looks like the inside of a hollow body and the sketches all around it are the alarmingly clinical sort to spell out the intentions of its owner in plain sight. Which is to say nothing of the return of Giger’s phallic monstrous Xenomorphs and I… fuck, man, I wanted to start out sounding positive enough, but if I’m going to talk about the Xenomorphs, well…

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It’s no secret Prometheus and Alien: Covenant function as prequels attempting to elaborate on the origin of the Xenomorph species, something NOBODY asked for and that is presented in an inevitably disappointing fashion by the script by John Logan and Dante Harper. So we’re meeting prototype versions of the xenomorphs and they just look flat-out stupid. They’re bad. They’re a bunch of overlit unconvincing CGI pygmy see-through versions of the Xenomorphs, they look even worse in motion, and we see them too much. We eventually get the full-grown versions of Giger’s creature and THOSE look fine, but they get very little screentime. So, the worse thing to me an Alien movie can do is make the actual monster – frightening nightmare fuel that he already is in design – look stupid and, man, this might just be the second worst work on the animal since Fincher’s Alien 3

Anyway, back to sounding positive for a bit more, and it’s not gonna be easy given I’ve already gotten started on what I don’t like about Covenant. The other thing that aids the idea of Covenant working better as slasher film than Ridley Scott’s thoughts on God is how indistinct Logan and Harper’s characters are. We have 14 different crewmembers of the titular Covenant ship, all married to each other and all responsible for the safety of the over 200 also-paired colonists in hypersleep. After Captain Branson (James Franco, thankfully not saying a thing or even opening his eyes) is killed in a freak accident that wakes the rest of the crew, they find a potentially closer habitable planet. The new Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) makes the decision to give it a look, despite of the protest of Branson’s widow and terraforming expert Daniels (Katharine Waterston), and save them the longer trip. The boots on the ground discover the place to have shown evidence of a previous humanoid population and the wreckage of the Engineer ship from Prometheus yet the planet seems completely deserted. If you need to be told what happens once spores are shown to enter two of the crew’s bodies, you haven’t seen Alien.

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Anyway, like said before, the crew members are all just a body count for the xenomorphs once they savage their way out into the world and they’re only as identifiable as their performance. Good news for Waterston’s final girl persona and Crudup’s obnoxious man of faith; okay news for Amy Seimetz and Carmen Ejogo who have really one scene where they get to provide a louder note of terror and admittedly do well with it; bad news for practically everyone else. Danny McBride is hands-down my biggest reason to be excited for this movie (my love for Eastbound & Down overwhelms my love for Alien or horror) and his attempts at drama and fear were frankly labored here. The only actor decently serviced by the script is Michael Fassbender as two separate synthetics – David’s sinister return from Prometheus and the duty-bound Walter – and I would do an injustice describing how astoundingly Fassbender serves their split identities and the thematic material that exits David’s lips and enter’s Walter’s minds as the former tries to influence the latter. Fassbender-on-Fassbender action (both literal and figurative) is literally the only time all Scott’s attempted eloquences on humanity and destiny and questions of God and man actually have the sort of profound attitudes that suit such a film, as well as serving to flesh out David’s attitudes as similar to that of Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein and his motivations behind the third act of the film going full-on monster mode. It’s only a small amount unfortunately and that doesn’t work in anybody’s else’s shoes: not Crudup’s talk of the devil, not Waterston’s attempts at motivating her colleagues to survive. They’re good performances but they’re not Michael Fassbender and so don’t service the side of Covenant that wants to be the ponderous follow-up to Prometheus.

At a little under two hours, Alien: Covenant is not long at all. And yet it felt like it outstayed its welcome because of the double-stuffed goals of Ridley Scott and it’s seeming more and more like Scott should take it easy and stick to straightforward popcorn work. He hasn’t been nearly as successfully intellectual a filmmaker since Blade Runner (or the original cut of Kingdom of Heaven), but his eye for visuals still promises an ability to entertain on a surface-level. Prometheus and The Martian had the right idea only letting the strictly entertaining stand-out. It can’t satisfy otherwise.

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We Can Jack Up Our Prices on Two-Time Galaxy Saving.

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I’ve been struggling to write my pained angry review of Beauty and the Beast partly because I have no way to not turn everything all around to the injection of Daddy Issues and that is, at best, just a couple of scenes.

James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is proving to be a tougher time as it is loaded to the brim with Daddy Issues and, while this was a shocker even before the trailers with Kurt Russell’s reveal as Peter “Starlord” Quill (Chris Pratt)’s father Ego showed up (given Yondu’s very last lines in the first movie), I’m not 100% certain it felt organic to the film. Largely because Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 means backpedaling a lot on the relationship growth between the central group: Starlord, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper, motion captured by James’ brother Sean Gunn, who also gets a live-action role as a space pirate Ravager), and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) are almost all pushed backwards into feeling more like people who just met each other than a team who had their fair share of trials together. This is most severe on Rocket, whose retrograde is how the plot kicks off, but it’s also lessened by the fact that Cooper is just a fantastic voice actor in the role and sarcastic and biting things to say are like a second language to him. Can’t say the rest about most of the other cast members – the energy in both Pratt and Bautista’s comic element seems to be draining, but they put up a good fight and Diesel’s voice is at this point so altered he feels like a practical non-entity. Saldana at least gets more to work with in Gamora’s continued feud with her cyborg adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) (with its own amount of ties to daddy issues), but it’s tough to keep yourself engaged in that story when one of the characters is a stern and terse figure and the other is written as a one-emotion character of rage. Which is not to see Saldana and Gillan can’t make their arc work, but it doesn’t make for compelling cinema.

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That’s a lot more words than I intended to open with ragging the hell on a movie that I actually walked out enjoying and liking. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 may have not known the proper way to bring back its characters, but it’s actually some of the most impressive visual work Marvel has done since the first movie came around. The bold and bright color palette design of the first movie is now bolder and brighter and yet still balanced by the hands of Scott Chambliss, even when it’s complete blocks of one shade like the gold of the Sovereign throne room and the wonderous kaleidoscopic fauna of Ego’s… well Ego’s home world, I will stick to in order to avoid spoilers for people who aren’t fans of the comic. And this in itself is home to some wonderfully kinetic comic book framing by Gunn and cinematographer Henry Braham, which in turn lends themselves to the most creative fight scenes the MCU has brought us this side of Captain America: Civil War. A zippy arrowflight shown via closed-circuit television, an opening monster battle out of focus in the background as Baby Groot dances along to the best soundtrack he could. Yep, there is now a second Awesome Mix with songs I am compelled to say I overall prefer to the selections in the first movie’s Awesome Mix – Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”, Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” (which was on the soundtrack to my high school angst), and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” – but I’m not so sure about how its used in the film. A lot more inorganically (like the character developments) and sometimes blatantly recycled or out of place (“The Chain” appears in one scene it doesn’t need to and the movie cuts the song before it reaches its awesome climax) and yet there are moments like the aforementioned arrow battle that it works like magic or Rocket’s ambush of Ravengers using traps and guerrilla tactics. Basically as an aesthetical delight, this movie delivered some and more on feeling like the trailer to Thor: Ragnarok thought it was gonna be the first zany and bouncy MCU film.

And then there’s still the fact that not all of the characters are a wash. Sure, Michael Rooker is not playing Yondu, but instead a version of Space Merle, but the extended screentime in the presence of Space Merle and the new ties he has with the Guardians (and chemistry with Rocket) is wonderous thing (generally, getting a closer look at the Ravagers culture appeals to the punk in me). Kurt Russell has moxy enough to believe that he and Pratt could be related while turning his charm levels up high for when the movie is expects him to about face as a character. And Pom Klementieff is the best possible new discovery as Ego’s cute socially awkward empath Mantis, who seems to have stolen all of Bautista’s oblivious humor and yet is generous enough to make the two actors a perfect odd couple to share the screen with together. Yeah yeah yeah, she’s a Born Sexy Yesterday, but a fun and unsexualized version.

It’s weird to admit I was dreading this as a simple retread (and it IS) and sure it does not earn its 130 minute runtime, but it is the most fun you could have being recycled another storyline and isn’t it enough to ask we have a good time? If Marvel can keep things at that level like Vol. 2 and Ragnarok promise, I can see myself getting tired of the “same-old comic book movie” criticisms.

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Behind Every Space Man…

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A disclosure that I can only get away with on a personal blog: the reason that the concept of a movie largely involved with academics in general puts me usually is the same as one of the (many) reasons that I, Grad student of computers, hate school. I can’t stand chalkboard sounds. Something about the silent scraping of chalk against that calcium sulfate material always gets my teeth grinding and on edge about how easily it could go wrong. There’s always a fine gravelly tone for the contact, no matter how softly you write. Chalkboard makes me anxious.

Anyway, part of the reason why Hidden Figures kept me from enjoying it was the fact that, because it revolved around characters needing to make calculations that are apparent to the audience and that means literal visual representations and that means a lot of chalkboards. It’s imperative to the plot of the film after all, which is to follow on three of the unsung heroines of the NASA Project Mercury between 1961-62 (the project lasted from 1958-1963, early in the Space Race). Which, being a Space enthusiast, obviously interested me heavily enough to forego the fact that I couldn’t even finish director Theodore Melfi’s first feature St. Vincent. To be honest, his bland “history class movie” work here is not good either and yet another reason why I didn’t dig Hidden Figures enough to understand why it’s such a heavy contender for the Best Picture Oscar.

Those unsung heroines of the field are notably African-American women working in a dungeon-esque basement in a bland building in NASA away from the real projects at the beginning of the film. The three central ones in our focus are Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who spends the majority of her screentime going through a painstaking academic crucible to be promoted from mathematician to engineer, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the much-labored de facto supervisor-without-the-title of all the Afro-American female calculators who ends up getting ahead of NASA on their integration of IBM’s computers, and very much at the front of the picture, Katharine Johnson nee Goble (Taraji P. Henson), whose accuracy with complex calculations meant that she was able to figure trajectories and landing points better than the IBMs and helped send John Glenn (Glen Powell) to space and back again.

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If I do admit I somewhat dug Hidden Figures, it’s by the skin of its teeth and thanks entirely to its cast. You see, Hidden Figures is the sort of movie that under a director as lazy as Melfi pushes everything right into the indiscernable background of the film just to prostrate itself to actors (this as opposed to the much more skilled Pablo Larrain’s Oscarbait biopic this year, Jackie, which is undeniably a showcase for Natalie Portman’s performance but also an overall brilliantly crafted examination in trauma, grief, and identity). And when I say indiscernable, I mean, I can’t waste any more words trying to think of a manner that Melfi tries to make the movie have any personality beyond its soundtrack – a mix between Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch trying to use unrecognizable motifs to make this feel like a Kevin Costner vehicle from the late 80s to Pharrell Williams writing original songs trying so hard to recreate the James Brown stylings of 1960s rhythm music. Otherwise, it’s the least effort I’ve seen in a visual vocabulary.

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Part of why this movie needed to have its cast – especially its three leads – do the heavy-lifting is from the frank fact that there is not as much fascination made with what the three did than it is with the fact that they ARE black women and unlike Tim Brayton, I really have no problem with that being the point of the film. The film portrays Johnson’s mathematical capability like it’s practically casual for her and the bigotry is the only real roadblock to seeing her accomplishments. In the meantime, the only reason Jackson has a tough time being allowed to join the engineers or Vaughan getting the recognition she deserves for being overworked as a supervisor without the recognition she earns for it is because of their color while their gender leads to them being doubted by many of the black men surrounding them, including briefly Johnson’s obvious to-be-husband Lt. Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, because he’s everywhere in 2016 and I don’t mind with the life he gives to a functional role pretending the story is about his eagerness to marry Katherine). Could the film be less lead-footed about it? Lord, YES. There are two speeches by Henson given to Johnson and her supervisor Al Harrison (Kevin Costner as the good white man who again makes it work in his Costner wholesomeness) and they are brilliantly delivered, especially the latter in its exhausted fieriness, but the dialogue does her no favors overstating themes and the script by Melfi and Allison Schroeder never gets better.

And yet Monae provides more proof that with enough screentime, she can use sparks to make a presence even when her character is only driven by step-by-step plotting (Jackson’s academic pursuits are the least-developed area in the script). Spencer uses her usual screen persona to embody a mother hen role that portrays not only how easily she can have a relationship with our leads and the rest of the computers and defend their jobs, but even lets that extend to Vaughan’s skill with machinery, continuously remaking “that a girl” when she maneuvers a computer or car or tv or radio with ease and making it totally not hokey. And Henson… Henson’s facials alone embody a weariness and lack of confidence that translates to more focus on her work. And then Henson uses that build into an arc of growing confidence to call things how she sees it and finally get a seat at the table. It’s a performance deserving of a better movie. All of the performances are (save for Jim Parsons being… a non-entity). It’s a story deserving of a better director. The movie may have finally given these real-life heroines credit, but I’m cannot give it much more beyond its actors.

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Tonight, Tonight

I so so so so mean to boost my usage of this thing, after being beaten down to only using it once a month. So, when I have to reboot my output in anything, I always figure to start from the beginning…

No. No. No.

… not the very beginning. Because, what the hell can you say about Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory in Lyon other than that it’s a bunch of guys leaving a factory.

No, you want to be shown something you’ve never seen before. Something fantastic. It’s why people want to be told stories. They want to be surprised and amused.

But hell, you run that same risk in the likes of A Trip to the Moon. It’s so short and straight and to the point, not so covered in nuance and theme deliberately, that the idea description is just to say it is about scientists who happen to go to the Moon and fight aliens before returning. That’s the main content of the film and essentially the only thing it is about.

But its imagery is unforgettable, completely engrained into the idea of what science fiction film and what a dreamlike surrealism film allows to be a “reality” for the viewer. I mean, an image from cinema that is as engrained as that of Death and the Knight Playing Chess or Harold Lloyd Hanging Out of the Clock Tower lies below…

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BOOM!!!!

With a little touch of the fantastic and the magic, the moon is a face with a rocket ship sticking out of its eye. This is undeniably unforgettable imagery and this was well in the beginnings of celluloid, something which is practically cinema’s endangered species now.

You see, it’s the little technicalities like that that truly make it easy to love Une Voyage dans la Lune. It’s fun and pretty to look at. It’s such an obvious little fantasy, even when you ignore the fascinating magic tricks Melies obviously put together to bring it to life… the falling of the rocket ship, the costumes of the Moon Aliens… Those are eye-catching, but also eye-catching is the obviously novel aspects – the woman in short shorts being the workers to shoot the moon out, the professors being such long-bearded old men in robes that make them look more like Wizards than Scientists, oversized ships and rocket guns and staffs and one large-eyed moon…

What more can I say beyond that without going into the intricacies that bore my friends whenever I talk about them? When you’re wowed by magic, you don’t immediately find out the magician’s secrets. So, why should I ruin a magician’s secrets this time around just because I happen to be writing a film blog?

It’s human nature to dream and Une Voyage dans la Lune happens to be the first dream captured in film and shared with everyone.

Why don’t you check it out?

Pure Magic…