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Posts Tagged ‘movies’

The best and worst of the Star Wars sequels

Opinions on the Star Wars sequels have been polarized from the start, and from what I’ve seen, that’s no less true of Rise of Skywalker. I don’t see much point in wading into that — if you liked it then you liked it (I did), and if you didn’t you didn’t (I’m not liable to change your mind) — so I thought I’d post about something different. Instead I’d like to step back and evaluate what I consider to be the strongest and weakest narrative decisions made overall.

Spoilers for Rise of Skywalker, since both of these things play into the final episode.

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A Tale of Two Nancy Drews

The general process of “what old, well-established properties can we adapt for movies and TV?” has recently swung around to Nancy Drew — not once, but twice. We’ve got the movie Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, and the CW’s Nancy Drew TV series.

As someone who used to inhale the Nancy Drew mysteries by the linear foot — the original novels, the 1980s continuations, and the Nancy Drew Case Files — I have . . . opinions.

The movie is surprisingly charming, and preserves what I remember of the feel of the original books, while updating things to the modern day. Nancy gets involved with George and Bess after a boy at their school posts a humiliating video of Bess, getting revenge for his cyber-bullying and landing herself in community service as punishment. From there she winds up helping an older woman solve the mystery of her apparently haunted house (generally following the plot of the book).

The actress playing Nancy is quite engaging, and has a fair number of witty lines. Bess is an adorable science nerd, and they cast a black actress as George. The evolution toward friendship with Helen is also pleasing. And while the movie as a whole is lightweight, not attempting to tackle any particularly weighty issues, that feels about right to me. I’m sad that there seems to be no news of them considering a sequel, because I’d happily watch another one.

The TV show is . . . hrm. For one thing, it centers on a murder — two of them, in fact, one twenty years in the past, but apparently connected to the present day. Nancy and all the rest have recently graduated from high school, but Nancy’s mother’s death from pancreatic cancer has left her family with crippling medical debt that has scotched Nancy’s dream of going to Columbia, and kind of wrecked her relationship with her father to boot. She’s in a relationship with Ned Nickerson (here called “Nick” instead of “Ned”), but his own dream of a football career crashed and burned when he spent a few years in jail for manslaughter, and their relationship proceeded from “acquaintance” to “sex” without passing through much of a “get to know one another better” stage (that comes later on). George is both Nancy’s and Bess’ employer at the restaurant she runs, and she is not a fan of Nancy, who didn’t do anything to defend her at school when her own reputation got trashed by rumors — true ones, as it happens — that she was having an affair with an older, married man. And you rapidly find out that Bess, who claims to be rich, is living in a van on the edge of town.

If you are looking for the tone you remember from the novels, you will not find it here.

In fact, it feels a lot like Veronica Mars, but with much less snappy dialogue. Which might explain another aspect of the show — because it feels like the writers were fishing around for a way to distinguish their show when the territory of “Nancy Drew, but noir” has already been so thoroughly explored, and consequently took a flying headfirst dive into urban fantasy.

I mean “somebody call the Winchester brothers” level of supernatural material. For the first few episodes, I was waiting for it to be revealed that somebody in town was leveraging the folklore about how the ghost “Dead Lucy” haunts the town — because that’s how things usually go in a Nancy Drew story! Round about the point where one of the characters gets possessed by the ghost of the more recent victim, I gave up on that interpretation. Not long after that, I gave up on trying to keep track of how many different ghosts and spirits are running around interfering with the plot. Half the clues come from the dead, rather than from investigation; George’s mother turns out to be a spiritualist (much to the disgust and embarassment of her daughter), and another character busts out with a full panoply for sending somebody on an astral quest to fetch back the spirit of a third character that’s gone wandering.

What. The.

It isn’t bad. I wouldn’t call it especially memorable — see above re: not having the snappy dialogue of a Veronica Mars — but it’s perfectly competent urban fantasy. It’s just that urban fantasy is not what I expect out of a Nancy Drew adaptation. I can’t remember if there was ever real magic in the novels (and I wouldn’t trust my memory even if I did; it’s been probably twenty-five years or more since I read any of them, and back then my ability to read fantasy into a story on the thinnest grounds was pretty impressive), but I’m certain they did not routinely feature Nancy insisting she needs to steal the cursed Roman coins so she can use their dark power to communicate with the ghost of the murder victim and ask who killed her.

But since I mentioned the casting of the movie, it’s worth noting that this version of George is surnamed Fan instead of Fayne and is Chinese-American, Bess’ actress is British-Iranian and the character is a lesbian, Nick is black, and the police chief is Native American. It reminds me of the line from a Supergirl episode where Cat eyes the characters who have come to talk to her and says, “You look like the attractive yet non-threatening, racially diverse cast of a CW show.” As pro forma as this approach can sometimes be, I do prefer it to the alternative. It’s certainly a lot less jarring to me than the ghosts.

Like I said, the show isn’t bad. I only wish I could go somewhere to get another dose of the more authentic Nancy Drew flavor: a heroine who’s plucky instead of bitter, a mystery that isn’t about death, and a haunting that turns out to just be someone playing tricks.

Cats!

I had somehow missed the news that there’s going to be a film of the musical Cats this year. (Prefatory comment: if you’re one of the haters that doesn’t like it, please don’t come into my comments to say so. I imprinted on this thing around the age of six.)

I’m . . . wary, but cautiously optimistic? The cast looks excellent, even if I’m a little nonplussed by casting Idris Elba as Macavity. (The lyrics describe that character as “very tall and thin,” and while he’s got the height covered, in terms of build I’d envision someone more like Mahershala Ali.) But Gus the Theatre Cat will be played by Ian McKellan, which sounds perfect, and I love love love that they’ve cast Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy. I agree with the reservation Alyc expressed to me, which is that many of the people cast are good singers but not necessarily good dancers, but a lot depends on how they’re going to stage things; it may be that the bulk of the dancing is done by a backup corps rather than the lead characters.

A lot also depends on what they’re doing story-wise. Some of the people who dislike Cats as a musical do so because they went in expecting a full story, and instead got a series of song-and-dance numbers connected by a tenuous thread of plot. Are they going to beef that up for the film? If so . . . how? There isn’t a lot to work with, and I’m leery of any attempt to invent new material wholesale to create a bigger story. It makes me think of all the crap that got added to The Hobbit so they could stretch a very short book out to three films — I don’t want the same thing to happen here.

And I’m also crossing my fingers that they’ll make a couple of revisions to the lyrics. I may love Cats, but T.S. Eliot’s poems used a couple of unfortunate words for the Chinese characters, and there’s no need to carry those over to the film. But they’re single words and easily swapped out without breaking the scansion, so I hope they make that fix. From a different direction, I’m also wondering if they’ll do anything with the line about how Old Deuteronomy has “buried nine wives” — are we at the point as a society where we’ll just shrug and say, sure, Dench-eronomy had wives? We’ll see.

Ultimately, I just hope it doesn’t suck.

Avengers: Endgame

Outside the cut, no spoilers: I very much liked it. The film did the thing I really needed it to, which was to treat the fallout from Infinity War as a real and meaningful thing, rather than a brief speedbump in the story. At the same time, it wasn’t unrelentingly grim; the script did a good job of working in both gallows humor and situational bits of the sort where the characters are funny without meaning to be, which is something I very much like. The solution to the problem is naturally made from comic book cheese, but of a fairly good kind, and it allowed for an interestingly varied set of scenes on the way to the climax. The middle part of the movie worked in a lot of callbacks to earlier films and characters therefrom, without feeling like they’d been crowbarred in. And as a conclusion to the original three-phase plan for the MCU, I think its payoff works.

And now, spoilers.

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The Spy Who Dumped Me

Short form: this would make an excellent double-feature with Spy (whose trailers did it a horrible disservice: contrary to what they’d have you believe, that movie is not about Melissa McCarthy’s character being incompetent. Quite the opposite, in fact.)

Longer form: I found this hugely entertaining. At a few points it veered toward humor a little too crude for my taste, but not too often and not too badly; it isn’t the type of film I’ve noticed more often lately, which seem to be out to prove that women can be as crass and awful as men. (There is a broad swath of modern comedy I do not like at all, regardless of the genders involved.) And there were multiple points along the way where I think you can tell the script was written at least partially by a woman; it isn’t impossible that a man could have thought up the joke about toxic shock syndrome, for example, but the odds that it would occur to him are much lower.

And holy god is this a movie about friendship and sisterhood. There’s romance, but much like Frozen, the emphasis is on the main female characters, who are sisters in all but blood. It’s about having someone who will go to Vienna with you on no notice at all because you need to deliver a macguffin left for you by your dead boyfriend who apparently worked for the CIA. It’s about having someone who will high-five you for your ability to apply your video game shooting skills to the spies who are trying to get that macguffin for themselves. It’s about having someone who knows all kinds of random and embarrassing things about you, and who will offer them up in a desperate bid to keep a psychotic ex-gymnast turned model turned assassin from torturing you.

It is very violent, and often on the crude side, and do not go watch this one for the plot. The macguffin is really just an excuse for people to run around in different European cities, and although the story nods vaguely in the direction of there being some kind of power struggle over it, you never learn the first bloody thing about the bad guys’ organization and the thing the magcuffin does gets mentioned precisely once. It is as cheesy as you would expect and I think the script is a little embarrassed by it. The actual point is the two main characters figuring out who to trust, and never having to question that the other one is at the top of that list.

If that sounds good to you, go watch it.

Take It Like a Man

(Content warning: I, uh, talk about violence in this. Rather a lot. Not in gory detail, but if the discussion of traumatic and/or sexual violence bothers you, you may not want to read onward.)

My husband and I recently went to see Tomb Raider (short form: it’s ridiculous, but if it weren’t ridiculous it would be doing it wrong, and it has more to enjoy in the first ten minutes than I remember in the entirety of the Angelina Jolie version), and it’s freshened up some thoughts that have been percolating in my mind for a while now about violence and gender in media.

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Winchester (the film)

Saw the movie Winchester last night, for two reasons: 1) I have a yen to set either a story or a game in a structure like the Winchester Mystery House and 2) Helen Mirren.

Mind you, about three minutes into the movie I was asking my husband “why am I here, again?” Me, I’m not much of a horror movie person. I loathe the cheap “jump moment” approach to film-making, where you know something horrible is going to flash briefly into the frame, and I am beyond done with victimization as entertainment, especially female victimization. So every time we had a fleeting shot of some spectral monstrosity, I was both agitated and annoyed.

By the time the film was done, the agitation was gone, and the annoyance had morphed. Winchester has a pretty good story at the heart of it: Sarah Winchester’s conviction that she must build a house for the spirits of the people killed by her husband’s rifles, the company’s attempts to oust her by having her declared mentally unfit, the personal troubles of the doctor sent to assess her state of mind. The script does a nice job of weaving these things together in some interesting ways — and, I’ll note, it does so without ever making you watch the victimization of Sarah Winchester, her niece Mary, or Ruby, the doctor’s dead wife (whose story is sufficiently complex that I wouldn’t consider her fridged). They may be frightened, but you never have to see them weeping and bloody and begging for mercy. The least effective parts of the movie were the ones where the screenwriter and director seemed to feel compelled to follow the standard horror formula, making you sit there and wonder how much longer it will be before the person wandering around the creepy old house at night is made to shriek or fall down at the sight of a spectre. The most effective parts are the ones where the characters just talk to one another, unfolding their histories and personal demons, building suspense of a richer kind.

It makes me wish we could have had a film that was all that part, without the stupid jump moments.

Eyvind Earle (and Jumanji)

This weekend I went to an exhibit of art at the Walt Disney Family Museum up in the Presidio, on the art of Evyind Earle — a man most of you have probably never heard of (I hadn’t), but who did the backgrounds for the 1959 Sleeping Beauty. I had no idea what I would think of the rest of his art, but I figured, hey: if nothing else, I’ll get to see some of his work from that movie, which I knew was lovely.

The rest of his art is gorgeous.

He worked in a number of different media, ranging from black-and-white scratchboards to oils. As with so much physical art, reproductions don’t do it justice; the tiny images on that website don’t even do it a tiny fraction of a shred of a shadow of justice. His oils and serigraphs often use very intense color, coupled with a strong chiaroscuro effect, and he had a fascinating knack for combining clean, geometric shapes with fine detailing that makes some of the images almost seem to glitter in person. One of the signboards had a quote from when he was working on Sleeping Beauty that really summed up both his approach and why it appeals to me so immensely:

“I wanted stylized, simplified Gothic. Straight, tall, perpendicular lines like Gothic cathedrals . . . I used one-point perspective. I rearranged the bushes and trees in geometrical patterns. I made a medieval tapestry out of the surface wherever possible. All my foregrounds were tapestry designs of decorative weeds and flowers and grasses. And since it is obvious that the Gothic style and detail evolved from the Arabic influence acquired during the Crusades, I found it perfectly permissible to use all the wonderful patterns and details found in Persian miniatures. And since Persian miniatures had a lot in common with Chinese and Japanese art, I felt it was OK for me to inject quite a bit of Japanese art, especially in the close-up of leaves and overhanging branches.”

Mashing all those influences together explains the balance of simplicity and detail that runs through so much of his work, not just the material for Sleeping Beauty (which I liked, but wound up being eclipsed by his independent work, at least for me). We liked it so much that when we’d gone through the whole gallery, we went back to a few of the rooms just to look at our favorite paintings again — and then I went straight to the shop and dropped fifty dollars on an art book of his ouevre, because I wanted to be able to look at it again. I would have bought prints if they’d been selling any, apart from a couple of framed images priced at a thousand bucks apiece. I wish his estate was selling anything in the price range of normal mortals, but they don’t appear to be. (The guy at the museum shop admitted it was their mistake not to sell the concept art of Prince Philip facing off against Maleficent in sizes larger than schoolchild: how did they not realize that was a thing adults would throw money at???)

And then we had lunch followed by an exhibit at the De Young on Teotihuacan followed by Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle followed by dinner. It was a busy day. Jumanji was even better than I hoped it would be, and I have to give massive kudos to the big-name actors for channeling the mannerisms of their young counterparts; Jack Black in particular committed 110% to playing a self-absorbed teenage girl in the body of, well, Jack Black. Karen Gillan did an American accent well enough that I didn’t even think until after the movie about the fact that she’s not American, and I cannot imagine anyone other than the Rock in the lead role, because the number of actors who can pull off both the over-the-top machismo of a video game character named Dr. Smolder Bravestone and the neurotic twitchiness of a weedy teenaged nerd is fairly small. I recommend it to anybody who could use a few hours of laughing their ass off right now.

The Light Side and the Dark Side of the Force

Let’s talk about Star Wars and The Force.

Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, forever changed the way I think about the Force — in a fashion I’m still not convinced that George Lucas intended. You see, I walked out of the movie theatre convinced that this whole “light side” and “dark side” business is just Jedi propaganda. There are two sides . . . but they aren’t innately moral. There is simply the path of attachment, which gets called the dark side, and the path of detachment, which gets called the light side. And both of them can lead to good or to evil.

What persauded me of this? It’s been long enough since Episode III came out that I probably don’t need to put the answer behind a cut-tag, but just in case — and because I’m headed toward The Last Jedi spoilers, and because I’m about to get wordy again — I might as well.

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