Movie Review: Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

I recently got into Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries in a big way. It’s a brilliant and highly entertaining show, set in the 1920s in Australia, following the adventures and misadventures of the self-styled “lady detective” Phryne Fisher. If you’re into historical crime dramas and women who are 100% in awareness and control of their sexuality, then you’ll probably love this show as much as I did, and I highly recommend you watch it.

Well. Barring the first half of season 3, anyway. The writing went a little off the rails there and I had a number of complaints, but it balanced out in the end again, happily.

So, it’s hardly a surprise that I’d been highly anticipating the first Miss Fisher movie, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, which I watched a few days ago.

Cryptoftearsteaser The movie takes place very shortly after the end of season 3 of the show, and I suppose it’s a movie you could watch without having watched the show first, but if you do you’re going to miss out on a whole load of context. Who people are, why they’re doing things, etc. This is a movie for the fans of the show, not for newcomers, so if this movie sounds appealing to you, then I recommend binge-watching the show first. It’s a damn good time!

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears takes its characters from Australia to Jerusalem, where Phryne saves a woman from prison and gets entangled in a mystery involving this woman’s entire tribe disappearing, and her connection to what appears to be cursed artifacts. As is classic for mystery stories, you get misdirection, you get drip-fed clues, and you get taken on a wild adventure trying to put all the clues together as both characters and viewers slowly figure out what’s truly going on.

I’m not going to give too many spoilers in this review, because I do want people to watch and appreciate the movie for its many strengths, but I will say that one of the big reveals at the end is one of the most stereotypical “upper class murder mystery” plot elements that I had to laugh. I mean, it works, and it makes sense, and I’m bringing it up as a point of amusement rather than a mark against the story.

The characters were as strong as I remember them from the show, and the new characters introduced for the movie’s story were well done and fit well with the tone that the series has established. The cinematography was gorgeous more often than not, though I can’t say much about the movie’s special effects budget. Some parts were extremely obviously CG, and it looked pretty bad.

mfcotimage

The costumes, though, were delightful as always; I swear sometimes the fashion was the highlight of the show as often as the mystery itself!

While I did enjoy the movie in general, I did also find myself disappointed with it. Maybe it was a case of my expectations being too high or being different, but for all the hype, for all the love that the show had fostered in me, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears wasn’t the smash that I expected it to be.

For one thing, never has the show dealt with supernatural elements. The few times that paranormal stuff has been part of a mystery, it was all shown to be mundane trickery, elaborate ruses set up by someone who wanted others to believe something otherworldly was occurring. It was a show that wasn’t always firmly grounded in science (believe me, I have a gripe with one particular episode that seemed to have no idea how dead bodies worked…), but it was grounded in the understanding that the physical plane of reality is where things happen. If spirits are ever involved in Phryne Fisher’s life, they’re the sort found in a bottle.

Until near the end of the movie, I wanted to say it was the same thing here, too. Cursed objects are one thing, but a curse doesn’t have to be real for people to believe in it or act as though it was affecting them; belief can be powerful. It could have been real, it could not have been.

But given that returning an ancient gem to its resting place caused a dried-up well to refill… Or that part of the movie’s urgency was that things had to be wrapped up by the time a coming solar eclipse happened, which was foretold decades ago… Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears dipped its toes into the supernatural, and it didn’t fit.

It felt a lot like the team behind the movie thought they had to go big or go home, that they had to do something that beat out what the show ever did in order to justify a movie, and from my point of view, that just wasn’t the case. The movie could have been the equivalent to a 2-parter episode and I’d have loved it, because it would have been more of what I already loved. Changing the location was an odd choice, but okay, new locales are fun to explore. Throwing in some new cultural stuff and an exploration of how World War I affected non-Western regions? Good stuff, and I don’t often see that. Cursed items and supernatural elements in my 1920s murder mystery series? Why though? Was the team running out of course material to pull stories from? Did they think they had to do something very different to keep audience attention, that the series as a concept wasn’t interesting enough?

mfcotimage2

I mean, I have my issues with season 3 of the show, mostly with Dot and Hugh’s characterization during their marriage subplot, but even then I didn’t stop watching. It was a low point in the series, but I still enjoyed it. And while I did enjoy Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, I feel that it was the franchise’s new lowest point for me, a story that didn’t fit in with the rest of the series and really only tied up one single plot thread, and that was done in the movie’s last 2 minutes. Fans of the show could avoid this movie and not really miss much, despite the fact that the movie was clearly made for fans of the show.

This wasn’t a bad movie. But it also wasn’t quite what I was hoping it would be, and I finished it with the feeling that more than anything, I just wanted to watch the show again. The acting was good, the general story was good, but it stumbled over itself more than once in what felt like an attempt to up the ante, and it really wasn’t needed. I may watch it again in the future, but I think I’m more likely to just re-binge on the show instead.

Watch it if you’re a fan of the show, but be aware that it does some odd things that don’t quite fit with what fans have come to expect from their Miss Fisher.

Alien Franchise Retrospective

Recently I watched the first 4 movies in the Alien franchise.

…Boy, am I sure glad they stopped after the 2nd movie! Can you imagine how bad that could have gone if they kept making more movies after the 2nd? Dang, what a great duology that was!

Alien_Logo

Ahem.

If your sarcasm detectors didn’t explode there, I’d love to explain what I mean in more depth.

I’m not going to assume you’ve all seen these movies, because until last weekend, I sure hadn’t, so be forewarned: I will go into some spoilery detail in this piece, so if you don’t want anything spoiled for you, then feel free to not read this.

Alien_movie_poster In the first movie, we follow the crew of a commercial ship, the Nostromo, as they receive an odd communication signal and investigate, as per company instructions. They find some very weird stuff, including a whole bunch of phallic imagery, which prompted me to make a crack about H R Giger before finding out that Giger actually worked on the design for the aliens, so, uh… good signature piece? One of the crew finds fleshy eggs/pods, one of which opens up, launches a weird scuttly thing, a facehugger, at his face, which can’t be detached without killing him.

Until later, when it falls off, dead, and the crew member is fine again.

Until he’s not, and a baby alien bursts from his ribcage. As you do.

The alien grows quickly, is violent and deadly, and pretty soon the crew is dead except for Ellen Ripley, whom you’ve probably heard about even if you haven’t seen these movies. Ripley barely manages to escape the creature before the movie ends.

Aliens_posterThe sequel, Aliens, takes place over half a century after the last movie. Ripley is rescued from stasis, and tries to warn people about what happened to the Nostromo after they visited the moon where they first encountered the fleshy eggs. Nobody really believes her, though, since that moon now has a colony on it and they’re working on terraforming it, so how could something so deadly possibly be there without any of the dozens of people living there encountering it? Haha, what a ridiculous prospect!

Until they lose communication with the colony. Then they start taking Ripley more seriously, pulling her in as part of the recovery team.

During the investigation, it’s revealed that there many of the aliens, now commonly dubbed xenomorphs, who have killed everyone except for a little girl, Newt, who survived by hiding and being understandably paranoid. The body count rises, and the stakes raise when Ripley encounters not just a particularly large xenomorph, but a queen, laying eggs that will eventually repeat the process for any unlucky beings who happen on by.

Once again, Ripley barely manages to escape with her life at the end, but she does manage to save Newt.

~*~

I want to take a break here to discuss some of the things I thought about the franchise at this point. The 1st movie was freaking brilliant. The attention to detail was fantastic, making everything feel so believable. I liked the 2nd movie a little less, but only a little, and honestly, it was mostly in the way the xenomorphs became sort of a horde to be gunned down toward the end. Like one wasn’t threatening enough, so now there had to be a few dozen.

But there is so very much to love in these first two movies.

Ellen_ripley Obviously, there’s Ripley. People praise this character all the time for being a badass woman in sci-fi and horror, and yeah, she is, but it’s not just because she survives or because she uses bigass guns or any of that.

It’s because she’s competent.

I mean, the first time we really get to see much of her, she’s reminding crew that hey, don’t quarantine rules say that the guy with the unknown organism attached to his face maybe can’t come back on the ship without isolation procedures, I don’t care if you outrank me, maybe follow the damn rules, huh?

Only here’s the thing. You see all that “female softening language” I did in that previous paragraph? Phrasing it as a question, a request for confirmation, using “maybe?” She does none of that. Ever. Ripley’s dialogue is written like she’s a man. And I don’t mean she’s written as a macho butch stereotype. I mean, you could have all of her dialogue spoken by a man and none of it would seem odd, not a bit of it would demonstrate anything but authority and certainty. Two entire movies of this sort of dialogue, and it’s awesome to see, because it puts her on a level playing-field with the men around her. No posturing, no chest-beating, just no-nonsense authority and competence, and I effing loved it.

Remember that. Hold onto that image. Because the third movie apparently didn’t give a damn about that version of Ripley in the slightest.

Alien3_poster After the events of Aliens, the escape pod that Ripley and Newt were in crashes down on a prison planet. Newt dies. Ripley is rescued. A facehugger is seen scuttling out from the wreckage.

This prison planet is a lead foundry, and is currently being maintained by a skeleton staff of only a few dozen. All religious men. All who have a genetic mutation which makes them predisposed to antisocial and violent behaviour. None of them have seen a woman in years, so, tension.

The facehugger attacks a dog, and a short amount of time later, a quadrupedal xenomorph bursts out, killing the dog. It starts to terrorize the prisoners.

Ripley befriends the prison’s doctor, who also has the same mutation but has learned to overcome it. Ripley also finds out that she has one of the alien embryos growing inside her, which we saw glimpses of during the opening credits where a screen showed a facehugger attached to a face, but it was all in wireframe and I legit missed that it was Ripley and not just some explanation image for the watching audience, so… Anyway, this embryo is a queen, which means that the xenomorph running wild in the foundry won’t hurt her. She and the inmates come up with a plan to capture and kill the xenomorph, which eventually works but not without a whole load of fatalities, and in the end, Ripley throws herself into a vat of molten lead to prevent the queen xenomorph from being born and creating more eggs.

~*~

Okay. So what’s wrong with this movie that wasn’t wrong with the first 2?

For starters, remember how I talked earlier about how Ripley was essentially written like a man? Yeah, throw that stuff out the window. The writers of this one clearly thought that Ripley needed to be seen more as a woman, and so chose to do that by a) having her sleep with her new doctor friend after having known him for about 24-48 hours, and b) having her be the target of an attempted gang rape.

Because that’s part of the female experience, right? Sex and assault? Right? Right guys? Ripley’s a woman, so let’s show her doing woman things so nobody forgets she’s a woman! Right? Am I right, guys?

I mock, but really, that is entirely how that all came across to me. Gone is the competent woman who is written like a man and behaves on par with men and considers herself just as qualified to do things as a man. In her place is a softer Ripley who wants physical affection and literally backs away from a couple of guys who leer at her, which is step 1 of herding her into a trap. Because we can’t forget that Ripley is a woman. More than a competent person, more than a survivor, more than a godsdamned officer on a ship, she is, above all else, Female.

females

2nd gripe, the whole prison planet thing? The genetic abnormality the inmates have is that they only have 2 Y chromosomes. Which, uh, is impossible. Outside of them being experimental test-tube babies, essentially, and if they are, this is never brought up in the movie. They are always men, and they’re genetically predisposed to being violent assholes.

Okay. Sure. I’ll buy that maybe in the future, violent criminals will be DNA tested and found to have 2 Y chromosomes. I’ll suspend my disbelief a little bit here. But… an entire prison planet specifically for them? Is the movie trying to say that all violent criminals have this mutation? Contextually, it doesn’t seem so, because these people are entirely defined by their mutation. It seems to separate them from other non-mutated violent criminals. So then why an entire prison devoted solely to people with that mutation? Do they need to be kept far from men without that mutation? Why?

The prisoners there all seem to have found religion and generally keep to their vows of celibacy and nonviolence (except for punishments, I think, though again, this isn’t super clear), so why can’t they use those same skills in typical daily life around others? Clearly one guy could overcome his more violent tendencies and get a job as a doctor, so violence isn’t a sure thing, so again, why the entire prison separate from all other prisons? What makes these people so different other than a genetic mutation?

The movie can’t be bothered to answer the questions it makes me ask.

3rd gripe, the xenomorph. Actually, all the xenomorphs in this movie, from embryonic to “running around killing people.” This one is quadripedal where the others were bipedal, and in later movies there are increasing hints that the xenomorphs pick up DNA from their hosts which affects what their adult forms will be, but at this point, that isn’t explained, so the change in form looks entirely random.

The thing also basically goes from chestburster-size to full grown in a matter of seconds, because reasons. Unless it was meant to be that size all along, occupying most of the dog’s body before exploding outward, but there is absolutely no sign of that, so I’m not buying that explanation.

The development stage of the embryos is never fully made clear. Seems to be anywhere between half a day to multiple days, depending on how convenient it is to the plot, and by the time movies are tweaking biology to create plot-conveniences, I start rapidly losing interest.

A lot of people handwave this by saying that Ripley’s alien implant took longer to grow because it was a queen, and okay, maybe that’s the case. But if so, the movie ought to give some indication of that. Reading between the lines can be fun, but if it becomes necessary to explain something that otherwise looks like a plothole, then it’s no longer “reading between the lines,” but “fans trying desperately to make something make sense.”

Gripe 3.5 – Okay, the facehugger that attacked Ripley broke into her hypersleep pod, did unspeakable things to her face, left the pod… all without breaking the enclosure that allowed hypersleep/stasis to function for the organism inside in the first place. It’s not something where you’re hooked up to wires and tubes and stuff to keep vital functions going. Everything we’ve seen states that you get in the pod, it activates, and whatever’s inside goes to sleep when the access hatch closes.

But the facehugger didn’t go into any torpid state. And Ripley didn’t wake up when her pod was broken. Okay. Sure.

The third movie is where the internal consistency of this franchise starts to break down. There are too many questions left unanswered, too many things that seem to exist only for plot convenience, and too many random changes for me to just suspend my disbelief.

But oh wait, because we haven’t even gotten to the 4th movie yet!

~*~

220px-Alien_Resurrection_poster Do you remember how I joked, early in this article, that the Alien franchise was a great duology?

This movie made me want to add the 3rd movie back into my headcanon, just by how comparatively bad it is.

We’re now 200 years after Alien 3, and Ripley… Oh gods, it’s actually painful for me to type this out and I wish you could all see the look on my face, but… Ripley in this movie is the 8th hybrid clone of Ellen Ripley and the queen xenomorph, which scientists were able to do because they managed to get a sample of her blood from the wreckage of the prison planet from the previous movie. Only they also make the hybrid Ripley still have a queen embryo inside her, which they remove because the people in charge want an army of controllable hybrid xenomorphs at their disposal.

Cue the xenomorphs escaping because they always do, chaos ensues, yadda yadda, people excape and crash down on earth and bear witness to the rising dawn that signals a new day ahead and I wish I was joking about thatheavyhanded symbolism at the end.

Seriously, this movie is all style and no substance. The banter that existed between characters in previous movies, good for establishing personality and how people relate to each other and what’s going on, has been replaced mostly with one-liners to break tension, or setups for future one-liners to break tension, resulting in characters doing nonsensical things just to set up a joke that won’t see payoff until multiple scenes later.

And thank goodness I don’t even have to pretend this is the same Ripley anymore, because it really really isn’t. Not even biologically. But she sure doesn’t act the same. Half of the non-action scenes involving her have a threatening pseudo-lesbian vibe to them, and knowing what I know now of Joss Whedon, who wrote this one, I really shouldn’t be surprised. Dude is good at dialogue, but apparently he shouldn’t stray far from his niche, because this was not the movie to try showing that off in. As much as the dialogue was clearly written to be snappy and witty, it instead just came off as bland. Bland dialogue in a bland sci-fi action movie that would have faded into obscurity had it not had the Alien nae attached to it, because without that, all it would have been could be summed up in the phrase “90s action sci-fi movie.”

The xenomorphs in this are… Well. Okay. So they contain some human DNA, which naturally makes them smarter and better at communicating with each other and gives them the ability to form more complex plans, and… Do you remember the velociraptors from Jurassic Park 3? Yeah, this is the same thing. They movie the same way, they communicate the same way, they behave pretty much the same way.

But. Aside from human DNA making the supposedly perfect creature even perfecter, the queen that grew inside hybrid-Ripley not only laws eggs but has a mammalian womb, by which she gives birth to…

ALIEN_RES_newborn1280

I’m so sorry I made you all look at that.

But you want to know what problem I had with this movie that really grates on me in the weirdest way?

What the everloving hell happened to the setup with the Weyland-Yutani company?

Okay. For the previous 3 movies, the Weyland-Yutani company is slowly set up as something massive. It’s most often referred to as just “the company,” so some of the setup is easy to miss, but they have commercial interests. They have a weapons division. There are strong indications even in the 1st movie that they knew about the xenomorphs in advance and wanted to use them. They have a militaristic division. They have an entire godsdamn prison planet that they run!

They are, for all intents and purposes, the Shinra Corporation. They’re ostensibly a company, but they act essentially as a government, with their fingers in every pie, and they have goals that are further-reaching than you might think at first glance. It’s terrifying to contemplate a single company getting that much power.

In Alien: Resurrection? Haha, don’t be silly, Weyland-Yutani is just a business, we really answer to the United States government and their Congress, and people in the last 2300s walk around making references to 1960s crime dramas and whistling the theme tune to Popeye the Sailor Man.

Fucking hell, I hate this movie so godsdamned much!

The writing is atrocious, the movie the bland and impressively dull for an action sci-fi horror, and I wish I could strike it from my memory. I thought the 3rd Alien movie did a lot to dilute the promise of the franchise (and believe me, it did, in addition to the Development Hell it went through), but the 4th movie was something else entirely.

I think I’m going to hang on to my original statement: the Alien franchise was a successful duology of films. Anything that came after it were big-budget knock-offs, because I could see far too many problems with them far too easily. Unanswered questions, contradictory world-building, and an incredibly disappointing ending.

~*~

For the curious, yes, I will likely end up seeing the prequels if/when I can, and I also plan to watch Predator so I can see what Alien vs Predator ended up being, but I don’t have high hopes for either spin-offs, honestly. Not after the 3rd and 4th movies in the franchise were such a let-down. It’s morbid curiosity that drives my watching at this point, not a desire to see the franchise make a comeback, because honestly, it shouldn’t. It would get popular again, and then the cash cow would be overmilked and run dry, and I’d end up just as disappointed again. It’s not worth it. This, I think, is a good demonstration of why sometimes it’s best to leave a good thing alone.

Movie Review: Sadako vs Kayako

Why does this movie exist? It shouldn’t exist. Why does it exist?

If you haven’t already watched the J-horror masterpieces that are Ringu and Ju-On, then this movie is not going to be of interest to you, since it essentially is a blending of the two of them. And not even a good blending. Honestly, if you are fans of the original franchises, you’d probably be happiest to avoid Sadako vs Kayako entirely, since this movie is a total mockery of what made those movies so good in the first place.

sadakovskayako1

As you might imagine from the movie’s title, Sadako vs Kayako is a movie about the two yuurei spirits from their respective movies fighting each other because reasons. To be fair, I suppose, there is a reason given in the movie, but it’s a rather ridiculous one: after watching Sakado’s cursed tape, a young woman seeks help from an exorcist, who tells her that the best way to get rid of the curse is to bring in another curse, and have the two fight it out for possession of the woman’s life, destroying each other in the process. So they involve Kayako by watching the cursed tape inside the cursed house, summoning both Sadako and Kayako, and friends, it actually hurts me to type out this ridiculous premise.

But you know, I think I could have enjoyed this movie a good bit more, and found it less ridiculous, if it didn’t throw nearly all of the established lore out the window as soon as possible. For instance, in Ringu, it was established that if you watch the cursed tape, which is filled with images symbolic to Sadako’s life and death, you get a creepy phone call, and you’ll die 7 days later when Sadako comes to claim you. You can escape the curse by making a copy of the tape and getting somebody else to watch it, passing the curse from you to them. In the original novel (and the Korean movie adaptation), this was explained due to the curse very literally being viral, as Sadako’s psychic powers merged with a smallpox infection at the moment of her death, so the 7-day window is a sort of incubation period, and like all good viruses, its greatest need is to find new hosts. It will leave you alone, giving you immunity, if you find it a new host. That information wasn’t really in the Japanese movie adaptation, mind you, but I feel it’s an interesting piece of lore.

How does Sadako vs Kayako do it? You watch the cursed tape (or video, if you upload it to the Internet), which is completely different than the original, you’ll get a creepy phone call where Sadako actually appears for a moment, just sor of sands there creepily, and then you die within 2 days. Typically by suicide, for some reason, though at a later point in the movie, one of the cursed women tries to fill herself rather than face Sadako at the end, only to have Sadako kill her because “she’ll kill anything that stops her curse from spreading.”

I just… I’m sorry, but what? “She wants to kill you! If you try and kill yourself first, she’ll kill you for it! Because it denies her the chance to kill you!”

sadakovskayako4

My thoughts exactly, screenshot. My thoughts exactly.

Now, I will give the movie some potential credit: the change in lore might have been intentional, because one of the characters is a folklorist, and one of the major points about folklore is that information spreads from person to person, and that variation inevitably creeps in because without an original source at hand to check your facts with, that’s what will happen. Variation will happen over time and with numerous tellings, with people adding or taking away certain elements to fit their audience and their desired effect, and then that version of the story spreads and twists, and so on. So in that regard, it would be easy to handwave the changes by saying that it’s been a couple of decades since the whole “cursed tape” urban legend started, and things changed over time, and isn’t it interesting how that happens?

The problem with that theory is that Sadako herself has absolutely no reason to adhere to the changes in people’s perceptions of her story. The images on the original cursed tape existed because Sadako’s psychic energy burned them onto the film, symbolic snapshots of important events that happened in her life. The 7-day timeline, as I mentioned, was due to a viral element that was introduced at the moment of her death, an incubation period for a viral curse. In this movie, the images on the tape have all been replaced by one image of a hallway in an abandoned building, and then Sadako starts walking out from a darkened doorway. That’s it. No symbolism, no meaning, no sense. It could perhaps be argued that her viral cursed mutated, as viruses can do, but that interpretation is a real stretch, and requires you to know about the viral element in the first place, which wasn’t brought up in the original Japanese movie.

Next, Kayako’s house in Tokyo is apparently very close to the well where Sadako died. Which originally was quite far from Tokyo, so how it transplanted itself elsewhere is a damn mystery. Kayako and Toshio still haunt the house, of course, and Toshio is still associated with sounding like a cat, only the actor playing him here seems to have decided to just keep his mouth open and wiggle his tongue around a lot, because… hell if I know. It’s creepy, but it’s also senseless. Trust me, Kayako is creepy enough on her own; Toshio didn’t need to get tongue-wiggly to add to that.

sadakovskayako3

Anyway, there’s a girl who watched the cursed tape, and who doesn’t want to die at any point over the next week, let alone in 2 days, so she enlists the help of her folklorist university professor, who seems fascinated by the cursed tape story. He watches it, hoping to see Sadako, coming across as suitably obsessed. Despite apparently having a death wish, he agrees to help his student, and calls in an exorcist to try and cleanse the curse.

It seems the curse is too strong, however, and the exorcist becomes possessed by Sadako… somehow. She and the folklorist grapple with each other, and… Okay, do you know how in the original movie, when people were cursed, if they had pictures taken of them their faces would be blurred and distorted? This movie seems to have taken that a step further, since during that grapple-fight, the possessed exorcist delivers a mighty headbutt to the folklorist and…

sadakovskayako5

…transfers a Photoshop smear effect to him? I think this is supposed to be referencing the blurred faces in photos from the original movie, but this is the only explanation I can come up with for this laughable effect. And given that this is the only place such an effect occurs, understanding the reference would mean already knowing what the original movie had established, which would mean wondering why the hell so much was changed.

The first exorcist, before dying, mentioned that she had called in another exorcist for backup, one that was famous enough to get reactions from some of the characters. Which made me wonder if this character and his sidekick were from yet another franchise prior to appearing here, but if so, I can’t find anything out about them. He’s the one who gets the idea to make Sadako’s curse and Kayako’s curse stand off against each other, assuming that they will destroy each other in the process and thus remove the curse from the woman I mentioned earlier.

The idea that one might actually be stronger than the other and that the fight might still leave one standing, thus still leaving the woman cursed, apparently just isn’t something that enters into this guy’s head, apparently.

Neither is the twist ending, in which both Sadako and Kayako fall into Sadako’s well, still attacking each other, and then somehow merge into one super-yuurei and start targeting the survivors of this endeavour, and then the movie ends, and I’m sure I was supposed to be scared at some point in there, but really, I was just confused.

Sadako vs Kayako‘s biggest problem, no matter how I look at it, is that it attempted to take two franchises and meld them. But in so doing, it destroyed so much of what had been previously established. Had it been a standalone movie about someone falling under a curse and someone coming up with the idea to pit two curses/ghosts against each other in an attempt to remove the primary curse, then honestly, I think it could have done okay, could have been better received. Getting two yuurei to fight each other was, admittedly, a rather original approach, one that I hadn’t seen done before in all my years of watching Asian horror movies. Had it been done with original characters and an original setup, it might have been an entertaining and creepy movie. Instead, it just felt like a visual representation of everything people hate about fanfiction.

There’s a reason that the announcement of this movie was originally taken to be an April Fools prank. It lived up to expectations, but not in a good way. And now I need to somehow purge it from my memories.

sadakovskayako6

Movie Review: Paranorman

Paranorman is a title I was excited about for a while, but then it dropped off my radar. Discovering it on Netflix this past weekend was a nice surprise, and I decided it was high time I watched it. I’d heard briefly that it wasn’t very well-received, though doing a little bit of research online tells me that impression was wrong, that it didn’t have stellar reviews but was overall considered decent, and was nominated for and even won some awards.

Which I’m glad of, because it was a damn good movie in a lot of ways.

paranorman

The movie features Norman, an 11 year old boy who can see and talk with the dead. Naturally this causes a large amount of awkwardness with the living, who don’t typically don’t believe in Norman’s abilities. At best, they tend to think of him as a freak. At worst… Well, Norman’s relationship with his father makes me downright uncomfortable. His father is an abrasive man, someone who doesn’t hold with Norman’s talk of ghosts, and who makes no bones about it. When Norman snaps at him that he didn’t ask to be born the way he was, his father snaps back, “Well, neither did we.”

Ouch.

So right off the bat there’s some uncomfortable tension with his father’s intolerance and refusal to pull any punches, and for a kids’ movie, that was a bit surprising. Much of the time in movies intended for younger audiences, when there’s parental opposition to a main character, it’s because said parent is intentionally portrayed as a bad guy, maybe an evil to overcome, or else a pawn for that evil. Here we see something more akin to a kid and his father flat-out not getting along, something much more mundane, and for what it’s worth, while it hurts to see, it’s also a bit refreshing to see a portrayal of a family that has its problems without being the main problem. In introduces kids to the uncomfortable concept that families don’t always get along, that sometimes adults are blindly cruel, and that sometimes you’re going to face crap from people you love.

In short, it’s something to possibly gets kids and parents talking. And I’m fond of things that might influence parents to be parents and actually explain things to their kids, even if those things are awkward and unpleasant sometimes.

Anyway, Norman can see and communicate with the dead, and goes through hell for it. As if that weren’t bad enough, during a school play about the town’s history and folklore (involving a witch’s curse, because New England), he starts to see the world around him break and burn, revealing hints of something sinister underneath. The town eccentric, Mr. Prenderghast, approaches Norman and tells him that he has a job to do, that only he can hold back the witch’s curse and prevent the dead from rising.

Oh, did I mention that Prenderghast is dead for part of this revelation, and that Norman was talking to his ghost?

Also that Prenderghast is Norman’s uncle? And that Norman is now the only person in the family who can possibly hold back the curse? And that Prenderghast has nor moved on to the afterlife and can’t be contacted anymore for additional info?

No? Well, now you know just how the plot thickens.

para_03caNorman’s supposed to read from a certain book at the witch’s grave before sundown that night, to stave off the curse for another year and keep the town safe. The problem is that Norman goes to the wrong grave, reads from a book of what looks like fairy tales, and surprise, nothing happens except for the curse coming to fruition and raising the corpses of the 7 men who condemned the witch in the 1700s.

So now there are zombies on the loose. Lovely.

Norman and friends (or rather, Norman and his only friend Neil, along with Normal’s sister, Neil’s brother, and a local bully named Alvin) are led on a merry chase through the town, trying to evade the zombies and also find out exactly where the witch’s grave is so that Norman can read from the book at the proper place. It’s not really a surprise to hear that Norman does eventually find the grave and defeat the curse, but the how of it all is the really interesting part.

(Warning: spoilers abound.)

Norman can communicate with the dead, and typically this is just something that happens with ghosts, but as it turns out, since zombies are dead too, Norman can communicate with them. He discovered that the witch was, in fact, a little girl his own age, who could also communicate with the dead, who was accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death for it. In her terror, she let loose something horrible, cursing the 7 people who condemned her, and over time getting so wrapped up in her fear and hatred that she turned terrible and cruel herself. The now-zombies have had plenty of time to think about their actions, to regret what they did to a young child, and who want to end the curse and be able to fully rest.

It’s still up to Norman to still the curse, but he realises that holding it back every year doesn’t actually fix the underlying problem. The book of fairy tales is meant to act like a bedtime story, to put a little girl to sleep, but every year she’ll keep waking up angry and still want her vengeance. Norman has to get to the heart of the problem, trying to convince the witch, who is really a very scared and angry little girl named Agatha, that she doesn’t need to lash out anymore, that she’s not alone and isolated because of her power, and that bullying because you were bullied doesn’t actually make you better than anyone.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I love it. First, there’s the presentation of the idea that sometimes what creates a bully is being bullied, that sometimes people stick up walls around themselves as lash out because they were hurt first, and being just as cruel and the cruel people is the only way you feel like you have any way to defend yourself. (But also sometimes bullies can just be jerks, like Alvin; sometimes you don’t get an explanation or a reason.) You see people doing terrible things that they thought were right and good at the time, but only upon reflection and consequence do they see the error of their ways. You see mob mentality, when the townspeople attack the zombies, and even after the zombies escape the townspeople go on fighting because they’re so caught up in fear and fighting that they don’t even see that what they were fighting is already gone. They’re ready to burn down a building with the zombies inside, trapping kids and teens in there, refusing to listen to their cries for help and mercy. It’s some dark stuff, especially for a kids’ movie, and really, I love it. Kids can often handle way more than we think they can, especially when it’s presented to them in an action-packed entertaining way, and if they have questions about people certain things happened, then hopefully they’ve got decent parents around to answer those questions.

Paranorman goes beyond the usual trite messages about being nice to bullies and just being brave in the face of adversity. It talks about how people can become so fearful they lose all rationality. It talks about how people are not always good. It says you can’t always trust adults to watch out for you and be on your side. It says that people can make mistakes, even huge mistakes, and still be forgiven if they learn from those mistakes. This stuff applies not only to the issue of Agatha and her curse, but also on a smaller scale, with Norman’s dad. At the end of the movie, we see him awkwardly start to take Norman a bit more seriously about his ghost-talking abilities, not fully comfortable with it yet, but at least willing to put aside his own discomfort and reach out to the son he previously derided. It was a small gesture that meant a lot.

Besides, dude drove zombies around in his car. Pretty hard to deny the whole “communicating with the dead” thing after that.

The movie also had a great reading-between-the-lines bit that I feel is worth mentioning. Norman’s uncle’s surname is Prenderghast. Agatha’s surname is Prenderghast. Agatha, Norman, and his uncle, all have the ability to see the dead. It’s never said outright, but there are strong hints that Norman is related to Agatha. Norman’s surname is different, and it’s never said which side of Norman’s family Mr. Prenderghast is on, but the implication is there, that the abilities are a hereditary thing. Of course, it could be complete coincidence, but really, I choose to believe there’s a connection. That it’s left there as a subtle thing for people to pick up on makes me like the movie that much more, since it doesn’t act like the audience needs its hand held to learn every single thing, which is a big problem in a lot of kids’ movies. Sometimes you can leave subtle things in and still have people pick up on them, and even if nobody does, nothing is really lost in the viewing. You don’t need to know that Agatha might be Norman’s ancestor and that their powers might run in the family. All you need to know is that sometimes these powers happen.

Also, can I take a minute to mention Mitch, Neil’s jock brother? Norman’s sister Courtney spends half the movie hitting on him, trying to get close to him, catch his interest, and most of the time he comes across as utterly oblivious. I mean, who can blame him when there are zombies around, really? Then at the end, Courtney asks him if he wants to see a movie together, and he’s all, “Sure, also btw, my boyfriend would love that movie.”

And that, friends, is how you normalize gay characters in media. Don’t make the characters stereotypical, don’t have some big scene where he tries to let Courtney down gently and says, “Sorry, I’m flattered, but *deep breath* I’m gay.” Don’t have people freak out about it. Just, “Yup, got a boyfriend, you’d probably like him.” Mitch is who he is, and you either like him or you don’t, and his sexuality is part of him but not his definition.

That reveal did make me wonder, however, how many angry letters got written by parents, telling the producers how they shouldn’t have included a gay character in a mainstream movie because it’s “inappropriate, and how am I going to explain that to my kids?”

Overall, I really enjoyed Paranorman. It’s not a perfect movie, there were some unanswered questions, and some of the scenes were a little cheese, but really, it was still pretty good. It was a dark but somewhat comedic movie, an animated horror flick for younger audiences, with a lot of strong themes that went beyond what I expected and made for a well developed and engaging story. Given that I heard almost nothing about it after its theatrical release, I’d venture to say that it’s even a bit underrated. There’s more to it than a kiddy Halloween movie, there’s plenty that adults could enjoy, and it’s one that I expect I’ll watch more than once, because it was fun and interesting and does a lot that I can respect. Definitely worth checking out if you haven’t yet.

By Adrian Posted in movie

Movie Review: Rogue One

rogueone_onesheeta_1000_309ed8f6Everybody is talking about this movie. Freaking everyone. And it’s generally getting the reaction of, “Holy crap, this movie is so great,” and I’m honestly in that camp, though I think the movie did have its share of problems. I really enjoyed it. And there were more than a few moments that left me unable to eat my popcorn while certain scenes were going on.

There will be spoilers in this review. I’ll try to keep them to a minimum, and plot-related ones will be hidden behind areas you have to highlight to read, but if you consider character names and mentions of events to be spoilers, then fair warning, you may not want to read this until after you’ve seen the movie for yourself.

The movie, by and large, is about how the Death Star plans — the ones that showed its improbable weakness in Episode IV — made it to the Rebel Alliance in the first place. Definitely an interesting idea, and one that clears up a fannish nitpick that’s been around since oh, before I was born. The story is told around Jyn Erso, daughter of a man who worked on the Death Star, and I say that it all takes place around her because she’s not exactly a driving force behind the plot. In fact, aside from an impassioned speech and a little half-hearted rebellion against the Rebels toward the end, she largely gets carried along with the story as other people push the plot forward. It’s one thing to have a reluctant hero, and I think that’s what they were going for with Jyn, but it comes off more like a passive figurehead that you’re supposed to root for because… personal reasons? She’s hardly the most compelling character in the mix.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Donnie Yen) Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

I was already forewarned that Rogue One wasn’t going to have the strong female character that people expected, so while that did disappoint me, it wasn’t surprising. And part of the disappoint came from wondering why the writers, directors, et al, couldn’t have done better. Really, Jyn’s presence isn’t all that necessary for the story in Rogue One to take place. The Rebels need her to get close to Saw Gererra, an extremist who has information the rebels need. She becomes useful at the end when she figures out the codename of the Death Star plans. And that’s pretty much it. The rest of the story largely rests on the shoulders of Cassian, Bodhi, and a couple of other side characters whose names get mentioned (at least one of them does) but not so clearly that I could actually make out what they were called. One was pretty much a Blind Asian Monk archetype, and to be perfectly honest, I’d have watched a whole movie about that guy. That guy kicked some serious ass.

That and a reprogrammed droid K-2SO, but who I tended to call Sassy Droid because that about sums up the entirety of his character. But Sassy Droid was pretty awesome.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that, weirdly, the strength of Rogue One isn’t in its characters. It felt at times like too large a cast of characters being handled by people who weren’t sure how to, well, actually handle a large cast of characters. Development was uneven, with some characters having clear motivations for doing what they did, and others just getting swept along for the ride and generally not adding much to the plot. Some of the characters were needed to have plot points fall into place, but otherwise didn’t really contribute. Others, like Blind Asian Monk and his Pet Mercenary, seemed to exist largely to be awesome and competent and then sacrifice their lives for the greater good and so make us feel all the feels.

Don’t get me wrong. Feels were definitely felt. But one emotional scene doesn’t mean the character was important or strong, and I think somewhere along the way, that got forgotten.

So if the strength of the movie isn’t in its characters, where is it? Well, from where I stand, it’s in its overall themes and message. Because at its heart, Rogue One was a war movie. And a powerful one. It’s a story about how far people will go to take down an oppressive regime, of the sacrifices they will make and what they will risk. It’s a story that conveys much about tyranny in a short period of time. In that regard, it’s absolutely worth watching, and it was the strength of those themes that made me think that, despite its deficits, it was a damn good movie.

Take the scene very near the beginning, in an Imperial-occupied city, where people meet in secret and share information, however reluctantly. Knowing they could be killed if caught. When one oversteps and kills a Stormtrooper, the other panics, knowing that he won’t be able to escape due to either injury robotic arm or other disability (the movie isn’t entirely clear on that, only that one of his arms doesn’t function properly), that his life is pretty much over because he risked opposing the Empire in a tiny way.  The tension of hiding, of keeping your head down, of knowing that other people can be and probably will be harmed in order to get to you. Take the attack on Jedha, where tensions come to a head and rebels attack Imperial forces who are abusing citizens, and plenty of citizens get caught in the crossfire. The scene is chaotic and terrible and emotional, and seeing this only days after the horrific attack in Aleppo, and knowing that there are probably people who care more about the details in the Jedha attack scene in Rogue One than the real attack in our real world struck me so deeply that I couldn’t move for the entirety of the scene.

international-trailer-rogue-oneTake the tests of power by the Death Star. Only a fraction of what we see in A New Hope, no planets are fully destroyed, but the smaller-scale destruction is so powerfully conveyed in Rogue One because unlike in A New Hope, there’s no distance between the attack and the victims. There’s no sudden disturbance in the Force, felt by somebody light years away. There are people, on the ground, facing an oncoming wave of destruction with no way to escape it.  With imagery similar to the mushroom cloud of an atom bomb, it seemed to me a stark condemnation of those who would jump straight to idea of nuclear attack to destroy “our enemies,” without any idea of what that really entails for people caught in the blast. All most people have to go on these days are grainy pictures of test explosions to fuel their imaginations; they have this idea that a nuclear bomb is just some big version of a stick of dynamite. And though it’s a fictional representation, seeing Rebels and Imperials get destroyed by the same device, casualties of war, statistics on paper made flesh because we followed their stories, drives home the point that indiscriminate killing is utterly terrifying.

Take the scene of the Alliance discussing what to do after they discover what the Death Star is capable of. To retreat, or to stand and fight, or to scatter? The argument that fighting against oppression isn’t the same as signing a suicide pact, that even though you accept that some of your people will be lost to the cause, that’s not the same as deliberately throwing yourself into danger and not even knowing if you’ll accomplish anything. The clear presentation of the downsides to democracy — the opposite of tyranny, where nobody gets a voice — in that sometimes democracy means the majority vote resulting in not pushing for your freedom, because enough people say it’s not worth it.

It was this stuff that really did it for me. The movie’s characters are hit-or-miss, there’s some amusement in seeing cameos from old favourites (including a couple that I couldn’t see the sense of, but that’s neither here nor there), but Rogue One‘s greatest strength is in its portrayal of rebellion, of war and its cost, of sacrifice, or difficult decisions. The movie doesn’t say these things right out. It’s not so blatant. But the imagery seemed pretty clear to me, and there was a lot that was conveyed not so much in words but in tone and image. That was what got to me. Not the characters or their sketchy motivations, but in the way the movie talked about war and death and what it takes to do what needs to be done.

rogue-one-screen-shot-pngThough I will take a moment to mention one other thing that made the movie awesome for me: Vader. I could go into a litany of reasons why the prequels ruined Vader, but I won’t. Other people have done that far better than I could. But after years of seeing the man who will become Darth Vader essentially by a spoiled and easily misled brat, Rogue One brings us back to the utterly terrifying Sith lord that fans first saw. He’s an intimidating presence, mysterious and powerful and 100% somebody you don’t want paying too much attention to you. A scene toward the end has him mowing down people left and right, not pausing for a moment, human lives inconsequential to him in pursuit of his goals, and that‘s the Vader that people saw none of in the prequels! A man who wears brutality like a mantle. We know how we began, we know how he ended, nothing about this character’s life is a secret anymore. But to see him return to being the character many of us first knew felt like justice. This is the Vader we needed to see again. He needed to become a figure of menace once more, and Rogue One had him do just that. It was the movie’s greatest characterization moment, and granted, that’s not saying much when all they had to do was have him act like he did in the original trilogy, but still. It was fantastic to see.

Anyone who has watched the original Star Wars trilogy knows how the movie will end. The movie’s conclusion isn’t a secret. The plans get to the Rebels. The team in charge knew that the “will-they-or-won’t-they” tension would be utterly absent from the film, so they tried to make it all about how. How they did what they did. Who took part in the effort. In some ways they succeeded. In others, not so much. But I think the movie had more good moments than it did bad ones. If you’re someone who’s incredibly character-driven and needs strong and well-developed characters to enjoy a movie, then it may not hold up to your expectations. But if you can appreciate it for more than just that, if you can see what it’s trying to say rather than who’s trying to say it, then I think you’ll come out of the theatre with the same reaction that most of us have. Rogue One is a damn good movie, and an excellent addition to the Star Wars universe.

Movie Review: The Silenced

I’m very much a fan of east-Asian horror movies, and so by luck and Netflix, I stumbled across an interesting-looking Korean movie not too long ago, called by its English name, The Silenced.

file_745983_park-bo-young_1430975083_af_orgSet in Seoul, then known as Gyeongseong, in the late 1930s, the story focuses on a sick young woman named Shizuko, sent to a sanitarium school. And if you noticed that I used a Japanese name for the character and not a Korean one, there’s a reason for that. At the time this movie takes place, Korea was under Japanese occupation, and one of the many societal changes that occurred then was to force the adoption of Japanese-style names instead of Korean ones, to bring the populace one step closer to accepting occupational rule by a foreign power. (For a brief overview of the occupation, there’s at least a Wikipedia page, which I recommend reading.) As someone making at least half-hearted efforts to learn Japanese, I can pick out the language when I hear it, and suddenly when a character just starts speaking a language I recognize when I expect a language I can’t recognise… I threw me off, and caught my attention, and made me want to learn more about the setting.

It also made me keenly aware of how much cultural time-period markers are not universal. In North America, we may associate the 1930s with a certain style of fashion, mode of speech, level of technology, and when we see movies set then, we don’t have to have a full history lesson to centre us in the moment. 1930s South Korea? I was forced to confront that I knew absolutely nothing about it. You don’t need a history lesson to appreciate The Silenced, though; reading a book on the Japanese occupation isn’t central to understanding the movie as a whole. But if you have an ear for languages and culture, you may be able to pick up on a few things that may confuse you if you’re entirely unaware that there was an occupation to begin with.

Anyway, Shizuko, who we later come to learn is also called Ju-Ran, is sick and sent to a girl’s boarding school to recover. Immediately she faces opposition, as she shares the same name as a previous girl who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The official story is that the previous Shizuko went home, but the girls there doubt that, as it was sudden and unannounced. The new Shizuko has TB, and is shown to barely be able to handle any exertion lest it send her into a coughing fit. She’s put on a new medication to try and combat the illness, and that’s where things start to get weird.

Shizuko starts seeing things. Creepy things. Things like one of the girls being twisted and jerky while crawl-shuffling under her bed.

netflix-horror-movies-the-silenced

Then that student disappears, and everyone’s told she just went home. Meanwhile, Shizuko finds a strange sticky clear fluid under that girl’s bed, and she’s sure she wasn’t imagining it.

This isn’t the only time Shizuko sees something and a girl disappears, leaving behind more of that clear goo. Shizuko also begins to show signs of recovery, her physical strength and stamina increasing to the point where she can run again and breathe easily. But it doesn’t stop there. Her strength continues to grow, as does her temper, and her resistance to pain.

It’s at this point where watchers start to wonder if the current Shizuko is possessed by the previous one in some way, if the previous Shizuko died and her ghost is lashing out not only at those who wronger her in life, but also those who wrong the girl who shares her name. It’s the sort of explanation that makes perfect sense in horror movies, especially East Asian horror movies where it all looks like a ghost story. But the truth behind this movie is even stranger than you might imagine.

And be warned, there are some spoilers a-comin’!

The problem turns out not to be a ghost but instead a program funded by the Japanese occupational government to create a race of super-soldiers. The medication that Shizuko has to take — indeed, all the students have to take medication provided by the school, and nobody questions it because everyone is there due to illness (though the vast majority are unspecified and unpresented…) — is part of that program, changing her into someone stronger, impervious to pain, someone capable of fighting for the Japanese government in times of need. None of them consented. Not all of them survive.

thesilenced4And what’s really impressive about The Silenced is that aside from the clear goo, everything actually ties together and makes sense. It shifts from seeming like a horror movie to a historical sci-fi thriller, and it does it fairly seamlessly. The transition makes sense, the story aspects fit together and get explanations, and given that all this happens within a massive tonal shift, that really impressed me. It’s not many movies that can do that and still stay cohesive. It’s a mind-screw for a while, trying to wrap your brain around how something switched genres right in the middle, and admittedly some of the special effects of Shizuko’s later superpowers were kind of cheesy, but on the whole, I’d say it was pretty well done.

The only loose end is the issue of the clear goop left behind after Shizuko sees someone losing control after they have a bad reaction to the chemical mixture that’s slowly changing them. There are a couple of things this could be, but nothing is really made of it; it seems like it’s there just to convince Shizuko that she didn’t image things, that there’s a physical source of the creepy things she sees. It’s a bit disappointing, though, that a movie which ties so many things together leaves that one hanging, with just potential reading between the lines to try and give it reason.

The Silenced deals with some very twisted and disturbing subject matter. There’s the obvious issue of the Japanese occupation and forced cultural integration, which I mentioned at the beginning of the review. There’s the issue of testing unknown treatments without informed consent, a process which is still relatively new in the field of medicine, and that’s depressing enough, but the movie stresses that part of the reason that the sanitarium/boarding school was chosen as part of the project is that it works best on adolescent women, and also because nobody’s going to question, “These girls are taking medication we give them because they’re sick, they have no parental supervision, and if any one of them dies, it’s easy to get rid of evidence and just tell everyone they went home.” It all works because people are kept ignorant. The movie’s primary antagonist hates her country and wants Japan to have greater control, hence her being complicit in the supersoldier program. There’s a lot that’s shown, not said, and The Silenced largely seems to respect the viewer’s intelligence enough to not spell absolutely everything else, to have a fanatical woman without a character commenting, “Wow, she’s fanatical.”

quilt

I have to say, if you’re into East Asian horror, this is one you should probably check out. Even though it’s not strictly a horror movie. The story’s certainly interesting, the acting fantastic (with a bonus helping of subtext along the way…), and I still can’t get over how well it was all put together. It’s disturbing and creepy in all the right places, atmospheric and tense without relying on jump scares, and has a lot to say about a very controversial time in Korea’s history. It’s on Canadian Netflix as of the time this review, so if that’s open to you, I recommend taking a couple of hours to enjoy it.

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I was going to start this review by saying that I figured it would be fairly safe to assume that anyone seeing this movie was probably a fan of the Harry Potter franchise, or at least familiar with it. And really, chances are that most of them are. I certainly hope so, since understanding the wizarding world is pretty much a pre-requisite for Fantastic Beasts; the movie not only assumes that you have watched the Harry Potter movies to at least having passing familiarity with them, but also assumes you’ve read the books enough to remember, and oh, also, hope you’ve been enjoying Pottermore, because there’s some stuff that’s probably going to see pretty random if you haven’t.

That’s not to say that Fantastic Beasts is incomprehensible without this advanced knowledge. But it does make for a far better movie-going experience, and it feels like the directors banked on people having this information beforehand. It’s a movie made for those who are already fans of the series, essentially: if you’re looking at your local theatre listings and contemplating whether or not to see this because your friend says you really ought to finally get into this whole Harry Potter business, then I think a fair bit of the enjoyment to be had will not, actually, be had by you. It’s a side story to the franchise, and it expects you to know the franchise going in. The most egregious example is that all of the foreshadowing leading up to the movie’s big reveal with be entirely lost on any viewers that haven’t done their homework in advance.

But that being said, let’s dive into the plot of the movie! Let’s look at some fantastic beasts and see where we find them! (Warning: there will be spoilers ahead. Major ones will be whited-out so you have to highlight them to see, though.)

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-movie-poster-homepage-size

The movie has 2 side-by-side plots, starting with New Scamander, fresh off the boat from the UK, enchanted suitcase filled with magical creatures in hand as he walks around New York City. Through happenstance, some of his creatures escape, and hijinks ensue as he tries to get one back before it steals all the shiny things (no, really, Nifflers love shiny things). In the mayhem, he accidentally switches his suitcase with that of a Muggle — excuse me, a no-maj; we’re in America now — and with the rather unwilling help of disgraced magic law enforcement, he has to get it back. Now, magical and non-magical people are utterly forbidden from interacting in America, apparently, so this guy who now has Newt’s suitcase, well, he’s in a lot of danger after he discovers that the world is not as devoid of magic as people would have him believe, but after developing a friendship with Newt (and a crush on a witch), he ends up helping Newt recover the remainder of his missing creatures.

The 2nd of the movie’s plots, and by far the more interesting one, involves a group known as Second Salem, who claims that witches are among us and that they must be wiped out. It’s practically a cult, led by a woman who seems to take in children and raise them to violently hate witches and magic. But one of the older kids in the group, Credence, is working with America’s magical community, trying to uncover the identity of a strong magic child whose suppressed power is getting loose and causing damage and terror around the city. Not only that, but Graves, the man that Credence reports to, promises Credence a place within the magical community once his task is complete.

I’m simplifying the plots a bit here, but for the most part, that gives you a decent idea of what stories the movie is trying to tell without getting into some of the more complex details.

As the movie goes on, the story shifts more from Newt trying to get his beasts back and focuses on the darker and more tense plot of cultish abuse and repressed power run amok. Which is where part of my problem with the movie arises. While it was great to occasionally step away from the darker themes in the movie and have a couple of more lighthearted moments, the whole subplot with New trying to get his magical creatures back made the overall story feel very loose in the first half of the movie. The Niffler chase scene, I can understand. The bit with the Occamy I can even understand, because it’s large enough to cause serious destruction and I can get wanting to rule that out as a possible cause of the dark magic roaming around New York City. But there were other scenes that felt like nothing so much as an excuse to try a little humour and to pad out the film’s runtime while showing off some CGI effects.

And to be fair, the CGI was great. The visuals on the magical creatures was awesome, and I kind of want to live inside Newt’s suitcase. It was a great chance for long-time fans of the series to see some of their favourite creatures come to glorious life, and I’m on board with that. But it led to me feeling like the plot could have been far tighter, and more than once I hoped for the movie to speed along a little bit so that we could get to what I thought was a far more interesting aspect of the story.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-niffler-slice-600x200

Especially once you get deeper into that plot. Turns out that when a witch or wizard suppresses their powers, it can turn dark and be unleashed as a violent force, which is called an Obscurus. That’s the force that’s been ruining New York buildings and cause chaos before Newt even arrived. It’s was a fascinating look at what uncontrolled fear and repression can do, taking a very real-world psychiatric issue and turning it into something physical, something to be seen and felt, as Rowling once did with depression and Dementors. That people in the know are sure the wizard or witch who produced the Obscurus is somewhere within the Second Salem cult just lends an even greater dose of pity to the problem; this person clearly hid themselves because they were taught, brutally, that magic is evil and people who do magic are terrible and should be obliterated, and who wouldn’t hide their true self under that kind of onslaught, even to the point of convincing themselves that they had no magic to begin with? I adored this aspect of the plot, because it said so much about repression and danger and self-expression while still staying entertaining and full of action that makes for good viewing on the big screen. It was a great melding of various elements, and that’s why I wish more of the movie had focused on this.

As it was, we were given our intro to this in dribbles in the beginning, hints that got overshadowed by Newt’s personal quest, and only after Newt’s quest is finished to we really jump into the story that could have and probably should have been the driving force behind the bulk of the movie, not just the second half of it.

As for the casting, I’ve got to say, the characters were played incredibly well. I can’t say they were true to any characters established in the booms, because none of them were actually in any books before this. But they were still great characters. Redmayne’s portrayal of Newt Scamander was great, managing to create a very awkward character who has his passions and interests and knows that other people find them uninteresting but doesn’t let that stop him. Dan Fogler playing Jacob, the man who finds himself suddenly surrounded by supposedly-impossible magic, does a good job of playing the everyman who finds out something fantastical; the right mix of shock and surprise and still trucking along with life because what else can you do? He’s enamoured of the magical world but not repulsed by it. And holy crap, Ezra Miller playing Credence was just… If you want to see an example of how to play someone who is painfully shy, neglected, afraid of himself and the world around him, then look at this performance. You could really feel what the character was experiencing, the way his eyes wouldn’t quite meet another character’s. the resigned way we walked through life, or handed his own belt over to an abusive cult leader in order to be beaten by it…

So here’s where I’m going to talk about the part that I really didn’t like about the movie, and it contains white-out spoilers, so be warned: Graves, the man that has been using Credence to find the source of the Obscurus, the man who seems to think that the ends justify the means, the one who is sick of wizards having to keep themselves secret from non-magical people, is revealed to be Gellert Grindlewald in disguise. And this, to me, was a huge weakness in the movie’s storytelling. It wasn’t enough that somebody could be a bad guy, they had to be the bad guy. It seemed so simplistic when you compare it to a lot of other messages about such things in Rowling’s books. Remember the great line about how the world isn’t split into heroes and Death Eaters? So it wasn’t enough that Graves by an actual person who was ruthless in his pursuit of the Obscurus, hoping to possibly harness its power to defeat Grindlewald’s forces in Europe, stepping over a child’s welfare to do it. No, he had to be the big bad himself, disguised as someone else, because apparently nobody could have those views other than someone we already know to basically be wizard-Hitler.

mv5bmtu1mti0ntizof5bml5banbnxkftztgwnjuymdewmdi-_cr51729743557_ux614_uy460-_sy230_sx307_al_This brings me back to what I mentioned about needing to do your homework before seeing this movie, though. The movie does admittedly open with some quick clips of newspaper articles talking about the atrocities Grindlewald is committing, and his name is dropped a couple of times through the movie as a reference to him being a bad guy, but the movie itself gives you precious little context for what that really means, who he really is. You don’t know that he’s basically wizard-Hitler. You don’t know that he was the most powerful Dark wizard until Voldemort came along. You don’t really get a sense of what he has to do with anything, until it’s revealed to all be about him. Fans who have read the books and watched the movies will get why this is important, but for those who haven’t, who are maybe just seeing this movie because people say it’s good, are not actually going to get the full effect of this reveal. Most of the movie’s watchers aren’t likely to pick up on this, because they already know his importance. Anyone else? Zoom, it goes, right over their heads.

It’s one thing to make a movie to appeal to fans. It’s another to make a movie with storytelling that only fans will appreciate, because the fans can fill in the faulty storytelling with their advance knowledge. This is a problem I had with the original Harry Potter movies as they went on. The stories got so complex that much of the actual story had to get cut out of the movie in order to reach the end without having a 5+ hour film to sit through. And so few people even noticed because they already knew what the blanks were filled in with beforehand. The 3rd and 6th movies were particularly terrible for this, for reasons I can and have gone on at length about.

I won’t spend too long discussing plot holes, though there were a few. Mostly in the form of unanswered questions and moments where you have to suspend disbelief a little too much. Why didn’t Tina say, “Oh hey, you’re blaming me for not telling you info that I tried to tell you the other day but you kicked me out?” How does the potion at the end affect anyone who wasn’t outside or conveniently in the shower when it was rained down on the city to help them all forget what happened? Unanswered nitpicky questions, over issues that make for great visuals and typical movie tropes, but these things are nitpicky, and they don’t ruin the movie. Just things for fans to debate in the future, probably, and I’m okay with that. No movie is perfect.

Despite having a couple of large problems with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I still have to say that I did, in fact, enjoy the movie. The visuals were great, and I, like many, loved seeing many of the magic creatures from the Harry Potter universe come to life. It was a fun movie, with a dark plot that tackled some hard issues, plenty to discuss between fans, and the acting was impressive. As I said, it wasn’t perfect, but most of those imperfections come to light only when you really look below the surface; without doing that, it can still be enjoyed and appreciated. It’s worth seeing, doubly so if you’re already a fan of the franchise, and I’m interested to see the story continue in future installments.

By Adrian Posted in movie

MOVIE REVIEW: Baby Blues

I don’t know how I manage it, but I seem to keep finding the most effed-up Asian horror movies on Netflix.  This time it was a Hong Kong horror flick known as Baby Blues, a title that is meant to not just the color of newborn eyes, but also postpartum depression.

Or in the case of the movie, postpartum psychotic break caused by a haunted doll.

babybluescover The movie starts with Hao and his wife, Tian Qing, moving to a new and gorgeous house, shown to them by a very enthusiastic real estate agent. During the showing, Tian Qing finds a creepy doll left behind by the previous owners, and she decides that she really wants to keep it for some reason. Because all a new house needs is he addition of a bleeding-eyes doll to make it complete. Tian Qing is a blogger, and Hao is a songwriter who, upon moving to this new and impossibly gorgeous house, starts getting a little obsessed with writing songs about death. Which might not be so bad, if the song he’s working on didn’t make his wife throw up, and end up influencing a singer to crash her car and die.

The movie flat-out mentions the song Gloomy Sunday, so it’s not like they’re trying to hide the similarities between that and the urban legend, so there’s that.

Anyway, as Hao continues his campaign to depress the music-loving world, Tian Qing finds that she’s pregnant. Not just pregnant, but pregnant with twin boys! Hao names them Adam and Jimmy by writing said names on Tian Qing’s belly, in a scene that’s legitimately a bit cute. Problems arise, though, when Jimmy is stillborn, and Tian Qing, in her grief and denial, decides to replace him with the creepy doll. Hao is understandably worried, but his songwriting demands much of his time, and doctors say that it’s likely just postpartum depression, and she’ll recover.

In the defense of the doctors, Hao never actually told them, “So, my wife thinks a random doll is our second son, and she’s starting to care about the doll more than the living child.” That might have raised so red flags.

The story continues to reveal that the doll is related to an accidental death between twins in that house. The doll seems to be possessed less by an actual spirit, and more by the grief and malice from previous residents that experienced grief and betrayal. Tian Qing is deep in its influence, now muttering darkly about how Jimmy-the-doll doesn’t like Adam, how Hao doesn’t like Jimmy, how Jimmy is the centre of her world, and in all honesty, the actress’s portrayal of a woman over the edge was actually pretty good. She was unhinged, half-possessed, and she showed it well, so I’m a fan of her performance. After the story comes out, Hao sets out to remove the doll from the house and to destroy it, to free his family from its influence.

Haunted dolls instinctively understand the creepy uses of smartphones.

Haunted dolls instinctively understand the creepy uses of smartphones.

I can’t help but feel that this movie was having a bit of an identity crisis. On one hand, it used some beautiful imagery at times, bordering on an art-film feel at times, trying to convey complex emotions by, say, the appearance of water dripping from a man’s hand. At other times, it goes over the top into ridiculous jump scares with average-at-best CGI. At one point we’re treated to a scene of the doll moving on its own, trying to get a knife from a coffee table by nudging the table a lot to make the knife fall. Unfortunately, it just comes across like the doll is humping the table leg, completely ruining any of the scene’s tension by the way it made me burst out laughing. The plot of the movie was fairly average as far as supernatural thrillers go, but it was the special effects that just ruined it, because they came across so ridiculously.

That, plus the whole subplot with the song seems somewhat without purpose. There are hints that it’s all influenced by the curse on the house and the doll, especially given what happens to one of the initial singers who hears it, but the second singer seems to be unaffected. It seems to serve largely as a distraction. There’s a slight connection to the story of what happened with a previous owner of the house being cheated on and going round the twist, but even that reveal was only there to serve as flavour.

And if you’re curious as to what the lyrics are that keep making people ill and/or depressed and suicidal, you’re out of luck if you watch the same version I did. No subtitles for the long lyrics. Which effectively killed any interest I had in that subplot, since my understanding hit a brick wall and it felt incredibly unresolved.

The original curse seems to have come from one twin accidentally killing the other in some weird game, only the twin dies from being pointed at and killed in-game, which I guess made him die because the doll was involved. Except the doll wasn’t cursed then. Or was it? And if so, how? That never really gets explained that well, and each answer just leads to more questions until you’re ready to just throw up your hands and say, “Fine, the doll’s haunted, and that’s all I need to know.”

Maybe it was a limitation of what the subtitles conveyed, I don’t know. Maybe if I didn’t need to rely on them, the whole thing would be much clearer and make more sense. As it was, this was a movie that lacked coherent origin or direction, had laughable special effects, ended ambiguously and predictably, and ultimately was more of a laugh than a scare. Not one I’d watch again, and honestly, not one I really enjoyed watching in the first place.

MOVIE REVIEW: Gomen nasai/Ring of Curse

I’m a fan of J-horror. I couldn’t exactly tell you why. Maybe it’s that I often find the visuals in J-horror to be really creepy. Maybe it’s that so far I’ve been lucky enough to mostly watch good ones. Maybe it’s because they’re a nice break from the zombies and serial killers that take feature roles in many North American horror flicks.

Whatever the reason, when I saw that Netflix had a new J-horror movie in its offerings, I decided to sit down and see what it was all about.

ringofcursegomennasai

It’s worth taking a moment, before we even get into discussions of the plot, to point out the unfortunate English title. Ring of Curse. If you read that and are reminded of the hit movie, The Ring, you’re not alone. The very title starts you off with what will quickly be revealed to be a rather derivative movie, taking elements from half a dozen other successful J-horror franchises, and those are just the ones that I could spot at a glance.

For my part, the original title, Gomen nasai (generally translated as, “I’m sorry,”) is a much for fitting title when you see what the story actually is.

The movie opens with Japanese pop group Buono talking about how the idea for the movie came from a story on a cell phone novel site. Which also consists of an apology for how certain scenes may not make sense, but they wanted to portray them as close to the story as possible. It’s never a good sign when a movie starts by apologizing for the fact that it might not make any sense.

The movie then cuts to a screen filled with words of death and despair, before launching into the story. Yuka is a high school student with an interest in writing. Despite that, when it comes time to organize the school play, the task of writing the script is given to Kurohane, a very unpopular and creepy girl who only is assigned that task so that more popular students can mock and torment her about it. Kurohane knows this, but throws herself into the work anyway. However, students who read even unfinished pieces of the manuscript start to die, and Yuka seems to be the only one who believes Kurohane has cursed them through her writing.

Yuke confronts Kurohane about this, and is told that yes, the writing is cursed, but Kurohane doesn’t worry about being brought to justice because she’s dying of cancer, and her death will only make the curse stronger. Before she dies, she sends a text message to Yuka’s phone, which Yuka refuses to read as she fears the curse will kill her the way it has killed others. Each cursed victim dies by asphyxiation.

Possibly the creepiest image in this entire movie.

Possibly the creepiest image in this entire movie.

So Kurohane dies, the message goes unread, and time passes. Months later, Yuka’s friends get ahold of the cell phone and see the message, and as they begin to die off, Yuka realises the curse has lost none of its power. Nor do they know how to defeat it. All they know is that you don’t have to read the message to be curse, only to see it. People are killed one by one, and the order in which they’re killed is random.

Then comes Yuka’s “Aha!” moment when she realises that she’s being targeted because she’s the only one left. If she shows the message to others, there’s a chance Kurohane’s curse will come after them instead, since the order is random. The more people cursed, the greater her chances of survival. So she does the only thing she can think of to spread the curse far and wide.

She uploads the text message to a cell phone novel site. And begins to tell her story.

I hope that cell phone novel site had a contest with a good cash prize, Yuka, since you'll need to pay for therapy to get this image out of your head.

I hope that cell phone novel site had a contest with a good cash prize, Yuka, since you’ll need to pay for therapy to get this image out of your head.

If you’re still seeing similarities to The Ring, it’s because they’re all so very obvious. A curse that spreads by people seeing a specific thing. The progenitor of that curse dying and making the curse more powerful. And the only way to save yourself is to show it to other people. It also had shades of Ju-On, some visuals that reminded me of scenes from Fatal Frame games, the whole “killing people one by one” bit seemed right out of Another, and was largely a mish-mash of J-horror tropes all rolled into one. It had 1 scene of physical violence, a few creepy images, but for the most part, had little to make it original and to stand out. It was a decent teen horror movie, but nothing spectacular.

Until you get to the meta aspect of the movie, that turns this from a “meh” movie into an amusing display of viral marketing. Again, it’s not unlike the viral marketing campaign that accompanied The Ring, where unmarked VHS tapes were left in random locations, all with the recording of the cursed video. At the end, when Yuka decides to save herself by uploading everything to a cell phone novel site, it ties back to the movie’s introduction, in which viewers were told that this movie is based on something read on a similar site. And the screen full of creepy words at the beginning were the words of Kurohane’s curse. You don’t have to read Japanese to be cursed. You just have to see the words. This was Buono’s attempt to save themselves after stumbling across Yuka’s attempt to save herself. So it’s a sly little play on viral marketing, albeit not a very original one.

This also brings me back to the issue of the movie’s title. I have to really stretch my brain to figure out how Ring of Curse can actually relate to the movie at all. Curse, sure, but Ring? Best I can come up with is that it’s a reference to how the curse works in groups, killing people one by one, so it seems almost like it’s gone in a circle by the time it comes back to you. But that is a damn stretch, and more likely the title was devised by people who wanted to cash it on the fact that The Ring is a well-known J-horror title in North America even today. Gomen nasai, however, works well not just because it’s one of Kurohane’s lines in the movie as she hands over the first version of her cursed writing, but also as an apology to the viewer. “Sorry, but by watching this, you’re now cursed.” It’s a meaning that goes beyond just trying to sound creepy.

Kurohane is a surprisingly sympathetic antagonist. Always having been unpopular and with a rather typical yurei appearance, she was made fun of a lot, until she decided to strike back by writing the word noroi (“curse”) all over a bullying classmate’s notebook. In her own blood. Hey, I never claimed she wasn’t creepy as hell. But it was from that moment on that her parents changed, neglecting her in favour of her younger sister, isolating her and generally treating her poorly, even after her cancer diagnosis. Kurohane grew up in a terrible situation, and so she turned inward until her bitterness had to have an outlet, until she stopped trying to convince herself that there was something she could do to win back her family’s love. Her vengeance against those who wronged her was brutal and out of proportion to some of the wrongs done to her, but when her background is revealed, you really can’t help but feel sorry for her.

It’s worth mentioning that if anyone else wants to watch this movie and has to rely on English subtitles… don’t expect much in the way of quality from the subtitles. Their timing is pretty decent, but there were frequent odd turns of phrase that probably came from weird translations, punctuation and capital letters went missing, and Kurohane’s name was either subtitled properly or as “Kuroha,” which made me think that there were only 2 subtitlers working on this movie and they never once spoke to each other or compared notes. The subtitles are good enough to get you through the movie and properly convey the plot, but they’re far from what I’d call good.

Is it worth watching? Eh, well, it’s an okay movie to kill an afternoon. It’s nothing special, its inspirations are blatant and many, and most of the value lies in the implications of the plot rather than the plot itself. If you’re a fan of J-horror, it’s probably worth taking a look at, though with the caveat that it’s not worth taking seriously. If J-horror isn’t something that particularly interests you, well really, you’re not going to miss anything by passing this one over.

Offscreen bonus! While watching a movie about a curse that kills people by asphyxiation, my asthma was acting up due to pollen and multiple people cutting their lawns in the area. It probably says something about me that I actually found this more ironically funny than ironically creepy.

MOVIE REVIEW: Beautiful Creatures

Note – I’d like to stress right from the get-go that I haven’t read the novel that this movie was based on, so any commentary I make comes straight from the movie itself, not a comparison between the movie and the book. Thus if I give praise or make a complaint about something and you know it to be different in the source material, that’s not relevent to what I’m doing here. I have not read it, and so I will not comment on it.

With that aside, let’s jump right into the review of…

beautifulcreatures

The story revolves around Ethan, your average attractive high school student, and Lena, new to town and part of a family with a long and despised heritage when it comes to their involvement with the small town of Gatlin. They’ve both been dreaming about each other before they ever met, and naturally, as is par for the course in just about anything, they’re destined to fall in love and be together. It’s a foregone conclusion; even other characters talk about how they’ve been tied to each other since birth, even though they only have known each other for a few weeks.

Which I’ve expressed my distaste with in the past, so I won’t bother going on about it again at length here. The Instalove trope has never entertained me, and it find it painfully overdone and trite. That being said, I do think the actual relationship aspect of the romance was done pretty decently. They’re kind of adorable as a couple. For all that Lena calls Ethan charming and that he could fit in anywhere, I think he’s a somewhat awkward kid who speaks before he thinks and that leads to some very realistic conversations between them. In the early stages of them knowing each other, he tries to impress her and comes out with some corny lines that come across, well, as a teenage boy trying to impress a pretty girl. It’s not eloquent or containing any insight into her secrets or his soul, but awkward and silly and they both realise it. So for my part, I do think that was actually done rather well. So when the focus is on that and less on how meant for each other they clearly are, I enjoyed the two of them far more.

The crux of the story centres, however, on Lena, as she is from a family of casters, magic-users, and as per tradition, on her 16th birthday, she will be claimed for either good or evil, with no choice in the matter. Males in the family have a choice, but for females, it’s all decided for them, in accordance with their inner natures. Lena fears, because she has a hard time controlling her powers when her temper flares, that she’ll be claimed for darkness, though she doesn’t want to be. Picture the Hogwarts Sorting Hat, only with 2 Houses and it doesn’t give a crap about your choices and desires. And that Lena has fallen in love means she won’t be able to resist being claimed for darkness, something which I don’t think was explained very well though it was brought up quite a bit as the movie advanced.

The family patriarch, Macon (played by Jeremy Irons, whose southern accent had more than a strong touch of British to it), declares that Lena is no longer allowed to see Ethan, ever again, to try to avoid darkness as best she can. Which is something that baffled me and seemed a bit over the top when you consider that it really only mattered until her 16th birthday had passed and she had been claimed. After that, the danger would have passed and they could be together without risk. But that didn’t seem to occur to anyone; it was an all-or-nothing deal. I don’t know, maybe in the book somebody points out this flaw in the logic, or there’s a better reason for it, but there was certainly nothing in the movie to indicate why they couldn’t just wait for a while.

I was quite pleased by what eventually happened with Lena’s claiming, though it wasn’t a surprise thanks to an earlier scene hinting very strongly at it. But it’s nice to see balance portrayed as a good alternative to the only choices being at either end of a spectrum.

I do want to take a moment to talk about a particularly painful scene, though, and by that I mean it caused by insides to shrivel a little from all the demonstrated hate, rather than it being a poor scene. The church scene. Half the adults in the town turn up to discuss expelling Lena from school due to rumours of Satanism surrounding her family and the fact that classroom windows exploded while she was being bullied. I admit I did have a hard time believing the realism of this scene, since nobody seemed to want to stand up and ask, “So how are you claiming that this girl blew out a room full of windows without being near them?” But maybe that disbelief comes from the fact that I live in a place where this sort of religious fervour doesn’t really happen much, and I know the American south is rather known for it. Maybe it was realistic to have people behaving that way, I don’t know. Either way, it hurt to watch it, watching that kind of small town mentality meeting to decide a kid’s future based largely on the fact that they disagree with what they think she believes.

bcchurchscene

It was chilling to watch. Honestly, it was more chilling to watch before the spirit of a dark caster possessed the woman doing most of the speaking. Mundane terrors can hit so much harder than supernatural ones, sometimes.

When you get right down to it, I found that Beautiful Creatures was a pretty good movie, quite a bit more so than most novel adaptations I’ve seen recently. The story was reasonably well crafted and with very few small exceptions, made good sense, which is something I find actually gets missed a surprising amount in adaptations. A lot of books-to-movies seem to get made on the assumption that any watchers have already read the books and know the story, so their job is just to put some shiny visuals up and not bother to keep the plot coherent. Beautiful Creatures didn’t fall into that trap. The acting, too, was quite good, most notable in the case of Alden Ehrenreich (playing Ethan), who did a fantastic job and whose work I look forward to seeing more of in the future. Definitely an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours, especially if you enjoy supernatural YA flicks.

By Adrian Posted in movie