Category Archives: Film

Movie Review – Warcraft: The Beginning

Video game movies are, in general, never good, and Warcraft isn’t, either, if I’m honest. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by it after the numerous very negative reviews it received. It might not be a good movie, in any objective sense of the word, but Warcraft is fun, and it tries hard, tackling its complex source material with an obviously loving respect and attention to detail while also clearly having some thought put into diversity and how to address problems like the lack of women in the story. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely a movie worth seeing if you like the Warcraft games or if you aren’t too much a snob to enjoy this sort of decidedly middle-brow epic sword and sorcery.

Having only played World of Warcraft, myself, my knowledge of the Warcraft lore adapted for the film is somewhat limited, but from what I can tell, it’s brought to screen more or less faithfully. My partner’s biggest nitpick was that Dalaran isn’t supposed to be floating yet at this point in the story, but the Dalaran scenes were cool-looking enough—and the floating city is iconic enough for WoW players—that I can see why the filmmakers would make that change. The look of the film in general was definitely heavily influenced by WoW, and the orcs in particular looked much the same as they do in the game’s most recent expansion. This is actually true of pretty much everything we see on screen; much of it is lifted straight from the games and simply animated with more polygons. It’s a nice bit of visual continuity to tie the film to the games, but it would have been good to see a little more effort made to give the movie some style of its own as well.

Still, I was prepared for the heavy use of CGI to be completely overwhelming, and it wasn’t at all. Instead, everything looked good, not realistic, but enjoyably fantastical, and the magic effects in particular were excellently conceived and delivered. That said, I’d recommend skipping 3D. There’s plenty of scenery porn (Stormwind!) and some really lovely shots as Anduin Lothar rides around on his griffon, but the 3D never did feel fully immersive, and I can’t say that it added much to the viewing experience. At any rate, whatever the filmmakers thought 3D would add, it wasn’t important enough for the movie to be shot in real 3D, and it shows. It’s not terrible to look at, but you’re better off saving the extra $3-5 you’d spend for glasses.

From a storytelling perspective, the film is clearly overstuffed as it tries to squeeze two games’ worth of story into a movie of watchable length. At 123 minutes, I’d say this is done with mixed success. Another half hour of runtime would have given the story a little more space to breathe and wouldn’t have been too long. If the reportedly godawful Batman v Superman is allowed to drag on for 151 minutes, surely Warcraft could have gotten a little more time to round out its character arcs in a more satisfying fashion. Nearly every problem I have with Warcraft, from its sometimes odd tonal shifts to its clunky exposition to its far-too-rushed character work, could have been solved with just a few more minutes of movie. For all that I’ve seen Warcraft called bloated, I think it would be better described as just bursting at the seams. It’s not so much that there’s too much story; it’s that it’s stuffed into far too small a container.

Sadly, this is most evident when it comes to the treatment of the movie’s female characters. Poor Draka, charming as the very sweet opening scene of the movie is, exists only to give birth and die tragically. The always luminous Ruth Negga is utterly wasted as Queen Taria, whose name I had to google and who has little to do aside from standing around looking beautiful, though she does have a conversation with Garona that gives the movie a Bechdel test pass. Garona’s story is handled in a way that is, frankly, baffling. She’s by far the most developed of the female characters, but much of what passes as character development and arc for Garona happens in a sort of shorthand that just… doesn’t work, especially when it comes to her romance with Anduin Lothar and the friendship she’s supposed to have with Llane Wrynn, which diminishes the impact of the movie’s ending unless you’re familiar enough with Warcraft lore to fill in the blanks yourself.

The thing is, though, in spite of these failures you can tell watching the movie that the filmmakers cared about doing right by all of these women. They aren’t always successful, and sometimes fail entirely, but there’s a mindfulness in the execution of their stories that is refreshing, was even pleasantly surprising for me as I went into the film knowing that Warcraft is basically a complete sausage fest until much later in the game.

Yes, Draka literally exists to give birth and die to save her infant (who Warcraft fans will know is Thrall), but real effort is made to show us something of who Draka is and to make the viewer care about this woman for her own sake. She has a personality—she’s fierce, loyal, and loving, with a nice sense of humor—and her death is legitimately sad, and while we aren’t given much time to mourn her, we also aren’t forced to experience the loss of Draka through the eyes of a male character. Instead, we’re totally denied the reaction of her husband, Durotan, which encourages the viewer to contemplate Draka’s death without regard to whatever manpain it might have caused in some other film and prevents it from being a fridging.

Sure, Queen Taria doesn’t get a lot to do, but the fact that she’s present at all is kind of an achievement after the better part of two decades of Kings of Stormwind having no wives (or mothers) at all. I wasn’t expecting this movie to pass the Bechdel test at all, and Taria’s conversation with Garona is small, but important. Also, it’s worth pointing out that women of color don’t often get cast in the role of the good, gentle, beautiful queen, so one can even make the argument that casting Ruth Negga is quietly significant all on its own. It’s not exactly revolutionary, but you could say that she doesn’t have to do anything necessarily except exist in a space that is usually reserved for white women.

Paula Patton’s turn as Garona seems to be one of the most polarizing parts of the film, though I have to say that most opinions on her performance seem to be negative. However, I completely disagree with her detractors. It’s not Patton’s performance that is bad, though talking around tusks doesn’t help anything. Rather, most of Garona’s speeches are not very well-scripted, and her arc is harmed more than that of any other character by the missing 30 minutes or so of film. Indeed, it feels, over and over again, as if anytime a scene or line needed to be cut short for time, it’s Garona’s part that is diminished. Basically, Garona obviously ought to be the main protagonist of the film, but instead her role was scaled back to make more room for Khadgar or something. As a result, all of Garona’s relationships with other characters feel half-baked, and when it’s important that we feel something about her—the ending of the movie is seriously some Greek tragedy-level stuff—it’s hard to muster up the appropriate level of emotion.

In the end, though, my biggest complaints about women’s representation in the movie are complaints that I’ve always had about the games, particularly World of Warcraft, as well. First, I will forever hate the extreme sexual dimorphism of the non-human characters. Though Draka is definitely portrayed as tough and powerful, as an orc she’s literally less than half the size of the males of her species, who are just ridiculously massive. I’m sure that some people find the “but that’s how Warcraft orcs have always been” argument persuasive, but this is one major way in which the movie could have set itself apart visually from the games. It’s also fairly easily accomplished, since all of the orcs are CGI characters; the filmmakers aren’t limited by anything but their own imaginations (or lack thereof). Second, and most importantly, however, aside from the three named women I’ve discussed, there are almost no visible women in the movie in spite of the Warcraft world being canonically egalitarian. I think I saw one woman knight (or whatever) in Stormwind, but I can’t recall there being any other orc women aside from Draka. Relatively recent studies have found that women (51% of the population) only make up 17% of the people in crowd scenes in popular films, and Warcraft surely falls well below even that sad threshold. This is especially disappointing in a movie that otherwise shows so many marks of consciousness of gender issues.

The rest of the movie is fine, but much of it doesn’t stand out as particularly good or offensively bad. I had high hopes for Daniel Wu as Gul’dan and Clancy Brown as Blackhand, but neither of them were recognizable in their roles. Dominic Cooper was fine as Llane Wrynn, but the Good King is always one of the most boring characters in any movie. Ben Foster was almost comically inscrutable as Medivh, another character who suffers for lack of screen time. Travis Fimmel tried manfully to give Anduin Lothar some depth and gravitas, but is weighed down by awkward writing; his most important relationships—with Llane and Garona—are sadly shortchanged, and a shoehorned in plot concerning Anduin’s son serves more to distract from the character’s story than enhance it.

Finally, Ben Schnetzer’s Khadgar is a little too dull, too bumbling, and generally lacking in personality to be very likeable. He seems intended to be the character whose perspective—as a young man, as an outsider, as a beginning adventurer of sorts—the audience identifies with, but it’s hard to see this magical wunderkind as someone that I’d want to be. If I had to hazard a guess on that score, though, I’d guess that I (a 33-year-old feminist woman) am not exactly the movie’s target audience. If they really want to appeal to me, they ought to have given me sassy silver fox Khadgar from Warlords of Draenor.

Warcraft isn’t a cinematic masterpiece by any means, but it’s watchable enough that I wouldn’t mind going to see it again sans 3D and I’m looking forward to the DVD release. I’m even hoping that the popularity of the movie in China will help make a sequel or two or three happen. Mostly, though, I’m hoping that there’s going to be some kind of director’s cut made available that addresses some of the issues in the theatrical version. That’s the movie I want to see.

Movie Review: Zootopia

Zootopia is perhaps the best animated film Disney has ever made. It’s gorgeous to look at, with a great voice cast, a solid story, a lot of laughs, and a great message. It also the perfect way to capitalize on the crushes that probably millions of now-parents had on certain other cartoon foxes when we were kids. I loved it so much.

Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman are perfectly cast in the lead roles. Judy Hopps is a great protagonist—smart, creative, tough, kind, and flawed in ways far more complex than is typical of the heroes in most children’s movies. Bateman’s Nick Wilde is the first time in years that I’ve liked him in anything; he’s a perfectly lovable rogue, with enough intelligence and depth to keep him from being a stock sidekick for Goodwin’s Judy. The friendship between the two characters grows in a way that feels real and honest, and their eventual breakup and ultimate reconciliation feel earned.

The supporting cast of characters is wonderful, with Idris Elba as Judy’s gruff superior, the Cape buffalo Bogo, Nate Torrence as Clawhauser the cheetah, J.K. Simmons as Mayor Lionheart, Jenny Slate as Assistant Mayor Bellwether, and Shakira as pop star Gazelle. Tommy Chong plays a nudist Yak, Alan Tudyk is a criminal weasel, Octavia Spencer plays the wife of one of the movie’s missing mammals, and Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake are Judy’s loving, if imperfectly supportive, parents. While most of these characters do fall into standard tropes for this sort of story, the tropes utilized are well-chosen and nicely put together in a way that avoids being cliché. The buddy cop mystery plot isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s a particularly excellent story of its type, and the cast is more than up for the challenge of bringing it to life.

The greatest strength of Zootopia, though, is the way it handles its largest theme—how racism works. With a maturity and grace not usually seen in adult films, much less in a movie for kids, Zootopia manages to break down systems of oppression in a way that even a child can understand. Certainly it’s not uncommon for writers of all kinds to use fantasy worlds and fantasy races/species as stand-ins for real world people in allegorical examinations of race issues, but what is done here is something pretty special. Zootopia goes a step further and looks at the ways in which even people who are marginalized in some ways can be privileged in other ways. And more—Zootopia doesn’t stick to any cutesy situations; it’s a straight up police state situation, and protagonist Judy is at the center of the events that bring it about. To be sure, she’s also part of the solution, but only after taking a long hard look at her own actions and committing herself to being and doing better.

It’s a timely, poignant film that doesn’t have any pat answers to the contemporary problems it deals with. Instead, Zootopia’s central message is summed up in its only original song, “Try Everything,” a paean to perseverance. The world may not be perfect, and you may not always be right, but all you can do is keep trying—like Judy does—to be and do better and work to make the world a kinder place. It’s a surprisingly mature and complex message to find in a children’s movie, and it makes Zootopia something really unique and special.

Movie Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

I kind of loved this stupid movie, though I think it’s more for what it could have been than for any of the things it actually was. And unfortunately, one thing Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn’t is good. It’s not terrible, however, and it is fun, more or less. Mostly, though, P&P&Z is an overstuffed mess of mismatched tropes, frantic pacing, and bizarre tonal shifts as it tries to be far too many things at once.

As a zombie flick, well, this one is sadly hindered by a PG-13 rating. However, P&P&Z still manages to show a surprising amount of halfway decently produced gore. The prologue scene shows us some zombies right away, and I appreciate not having to wait for any big reveal on that score. There are even some interesting ideas here regarding the zombies, and the existence of sentient zombies who don’t eat humans is a potentially compelling concept that is largely squandered by having characters essentially laugh the idea off. The moral dilemma that the sentient zombies should create is pretty much ignored, although there is some kind of hand-waving excuse-making done by vaguely tying the sentient zombies to the four horsemen of the apocalypse, who exist in the narrative for just this singular purpose.

The four horseman are only one of many potentially fascinating mythological ideas that are wasted in this movie. The opening credits detail a lengthy, detailed, and highly entertaining alternate history of an England that colonized the New World and brought back a plague that eventually caused King George to go mad and build a hundred foot wall around the whole city of London. The idea of the zombie disease as a sort of cosmic punishment for the sins of imperialism is reasonably original, and tying that to religion and framing it as the end times with the four horsemen and everything would be plenty good enough to carry a Regency-era zombie film on its own. The zombie cult with their pig brain communion and the conflict between zombie fighters and zombie sympathizers adds an element of moral complexity to the story that deserved to be more fully explored. Unfortunately, there’s just no time here, with such an enormous amount of story to get through.

The reason there’s so much story to get through, of course, is because this zombie movie is also trying to be an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The thing is, there’s a reason why the gold standard adaptation of this material is a six-hour mini-series. There’s an enormous amount of story happening in Jane Austen’s novel, and even the 2005 film—which, while a solid adaptation, was widely criticized for omitting parts of the source material—clocks in at twenty-two minutes longer than P&P&Z. With all the zombie material thrown in, P&P&Z moves at a simply blazing pace, and it becomes increasingly convoluted and disjointed as it goes along.

Eventually, it just feels as if the P&P elements are simply strewn throughout the film randomly. Things keep happening that are kind of like the book, but they never seem to mean anything, and even major plot points and emotional beats feel slightly nonsensical. For example, when Lady Catherine (Lena Headey, just making Cersei Lannister faces) comes to confront Elizabeth about her relationship with Darcy, it’s just a thing that occurs that has no real effect even on Elizabeth. Later on, Darcy says something like the “it taught me to hope” line that usually refers to his having learned from Lady Catherine of Elizabeth’s refusal to promise not to marry him, but when he says it here, he’s referring to something completely different.

Similarly, early in the movie, Elizabeth’s Aunt Phillips mentions that they have to plan their trip to the north or whatever, but then the trip—which in the book is a significant event—never happens. Also, Aunt Phillips isn’t even the right aunt—Elizabeth travels to Derbyshire with the Gardiners in the novel. The whole movie just betrays a disrespect for the source material and its fans that is, frankly, infuriating. P&P&Z feels as if it was conceived and written by someone who read the Cliff’s Notes for Pride and Prejudice once, begrudgingly, in ninth grade, and didn’t understand (or care to even try to understand) any of the things that made it a great novel and have turned it into a perennially popular and beloved pop cultural artifact.

I didn’t expect P&P&Z to be a good movie, so I can’t claim to be disappointed upon learning that it isn’t, but I did expect it to deliver a bit more in the fun department than it did. Certainly there’s the enjoyment of watching something with good production values, a great cast, and pretty costumes, but the whole thing was just too gloomy and over-serious to be truly fun. Most of the humor was unintentional, and there was overall too much grit and grime and not enough gore to generate the kind of visceral pleasure a good zombie-killing flick can. P&P&Z contains a lot of the pieces to a marginally acceptable adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, an okay action flick, and dark and morally complex zombie film, but not enough to do any of those things justice.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • Darcy’s grave flies were neat, but in a movie that is so overfull of things happening, there’s not really time to appreciate that kind of detail. While they appear more than once, the flies end up being just one of many superfluous flourishes that uses up screen time that could have been better spent on something else.
  • P&P&Z’s action scenes are nicely done, if a bit rushed. I was pleasantly surprised by how well Lily James did as an action heroine, having previously seen her playing waifish princess-y types on Downton Abbey and in Cinderella.
  • On one level, I like the repeated allusions made to a previous Mr. Darcy by having Sam Riley wearing billowy white shirts. Tragically, though, he never does go full Firth for us.
  • They did do a nice job of showing the sisterly relationship between Elizabeth and Jane, and I kind of loved when they got to rescue their men as a sort of bonus on their way to a totally different objective. Too bad about Charlotte, though. Lydia suffers similarly from lack of characterization, and it’s even worse in her case because there’s not much reason to be invested in Jane and Elizabeth’s rescue mission at the end since we haven’t actually gotten to know Lydia well enough to care.
  • I would love to see Matt Smith play Mr. Collins again in a more serious adaptation. I’ve always imagined Collins as a small, slightly weaselly fellow, but Matt Smith’s tall scarecrow of a Collins was a bit of a revelation. It’s only too bad that he was reduced to comic relief in a movie that otherwise took itself far too seriously.
  • I know this all reads like a laundry list of complaints, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t going to watch this like twenty-five times when it hits Netflix.

Suicide Squad: New trailer doesn’t look like complete trash

I was about 95% certain I was going to have zero interest in this movie, and I’m still not totally sold on it, but this trailer makes it looks at least moderately entertaining.

Jared Leto is still a horrible choice for the Joker, in my opinion, and Harley Quinn’s costume is a pile of sexist garbage. But Enchantress looks kind of cool, and Viola Davis and Adam Beach are in this movie.  I guess the question is going to become, is it worth it to me to watch Harley Quinn run around in her underwear in order to see a couple of actors that I like in a movie based on a comic book that I’m only vaguely familiar with?

Best of 2015: Favorite Movies

I never feel like I get to see as many movies as I’d like, but looking back at 2015 I have to admit that I saw almost everything I wanted to see this year. And everything was so good. Partly this is because, as I get older, I just get better at picking and choosing what media to consume, so I don’t waste my time with nonsense, but also 2015 was just a great year for genre films.

Jupiter Ascending

This is a kind of strange film to love because it’s, objectively, kind of a mess. However, it’s also beautiful and weird and ambitious, and tough, funny, clever Jupiter is a stand-out female protagonist. It’s not often that this type of wish-fulfillment escapist hero’s journey is written for or about women, so it was a refreshing change of pace in a world of testosterone-fueled grimdark action films. I think (and certainly hope) that twenty years from now, people will look at Jupiter Ascending with the same kind of fondly uncritical indulgence with which we recall 1980s fantasy films like Legend and Willow.

SpySpy

I actually didn’t get to see this until late in the year because I, frankly, didn’t think I’d be very interested in it. I will, of course, forever regret not seeing Spy in a theater.

It’s great to see Melissa McCarthy getting work where the joke isn’t that she’s fat. This movie is an excellent showcase of her acting abilities, and she brings brave, smart Susan Cooper to life with both sensitivity and good humor. While the examination of the spy movie genre isn’t particularly deep or groundbreaking, the movie more than makes up for any shortcomings in that department by being riotously funny and delightfully vulgar. It also doesn’t hurt that most of the movie’s important characters are women, and their interactions are all the best parts.

Inside Out

This movie’s strange concept is one that ends up working rather surprisingly well, and I’ve never felt so many feelings about a movie that is just about feelings. Many more thoughtful people than I have already written about how important Inside Out is, what a great achievement it is, how useful it is as a tool for helping children talk about their feelings, and so on. I totally agree with all of that stuff. However, my favorite thing about Inside Out is actually the character design for the feelings, which are not actually solid objects in the inner world the movie depicts. Instead they seem to be made up entirely of tiny, slightly fuzzy motes of, well, whatever feelings are made of, I guess. It’s just such a clever and lovely way of representing something abstract and somewhat ephemeral, and I never get tired of watching it on as big a screen as possible so I can see every detail.

Advantageous

This quiet little independent sci-fi film showed up on Netflix a few months ago having never even played in the artsy theaters in Cincinnati, so I didn’t know much about it when I watched it for the first time. It turns out that it’s a lovely and understated feminist movie about a future dystopia, and it’s absolutely worth dropping everything you’re doing and watching right this second. There’s not much that I can say about it without spoiling the whole thing, but Jacqueline Kim is incredible in it. She also co-wrote it with director Jennifer Phang, whose work I will definitely be looking out for in the future.

The Martian

I’d read this book earlier in the year and enjoyed it, and the movie didn’t disappoint. It’s funny and smart and exactly what one would expect of a big budget affair based on a best-selling novel and starring Matt Damon, which is to say really, solidly very-good-but-not-great. This might be the most purely entertaining film I saw this year, perhaps because—just due to the nature of the thing—there isn’t much to criticize about it, and I appreciate the occasional movie that I don’t have to think too hard about.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

I feel like I’m one of just a few people who even cared that this movie came out, although its sales numbers belie that. It’s a movie that felt strained almost throughout, largely because its stars had all sort of aged out of the franchise by the time they even started filming. Still, it’s a creditable ending to the series, true to the spirit of the franchise, and on par in production value with the previous films.

Mad Max: Fury Road

I grew up watching Mad Max movies, but this is the first time I’ve gotten to identify with a character who got to be part of the action, which makes a huge difference. Imperator Furiosa, the wives, and the Vuvalini are all amazing, revolutionary women characters, and the low key eco-feminist message of the movie is a great bonus. George Miller’s visual style is incredible. By centering the action and characters in each frame, he manages to eliminate a lot of the male gaze that would normally be focused on sexualizing the scantily clad women. It also works well to show off his impressive use of practical effects and gives the film a remarkable amount of distinctive character. I will definitely be watching this two-hour car chase again and again.

Crimson Peak

I love literally everything about Crimson Peak. While the trailers for it seemed to suggest that it would be a horror flick, it turns out to be a fairly straightforward gothic romance, although it subverts most of the more troubling gothic tropes. It’s definitely a movie that I think only really appeals to a certain sort of bookish, literary nerd who also loves voluminously pretty dresses, which I feel is the only reason that this movie wasn’t as universally beloved as it deserves to be. It’s a wonderfully woman-focused story with women characters who have an almost alarming amount of agency, and its climax is two women having an epic knife fight while dressed in absurdly billowy nightgowns. A nearly perfect film, and probably my favorite of the year. The only thing that would have been better would be more of Tom Hiddleston’s butt.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens is so good, you guys. It’s basically everything good about the original trilogy and none of the bad stuff. It’s excellent to see some diversity in space fantasy, and Carrie Fisher is back as General Leia. The movie definitely feels a bit derivative at points, and it hits a lot of the same beats that A New Hope did, but in a way that is pleasantly familiar and made fresh again by building the story around characters that don’t fit the usual (read: white and male) mold of characters who get to have hero’s journeys.

Star Trek Beyond: Is this trailer for real?

I would love to believe that this is a cruel trick being played on us all, but this appears to be an actual trailer for the third Star Trek reboot movie.

I’m not sure what is most upsetting about this.

Is it the terrible music that ought to be completely inappropriate for Star Trek? Is it the slapstick-y “comedy”? Is it the liberal use of the “hot alien babe” to market the movie? Is it that Uhura screams in terror and gets physically pushed behind a man more than once in just 90 seconds? Is it that the Enterprise is getting destroyed again?

I don’t even know where to start with how much I hate basically everything about this disaster of a trailer. These reboot flicks have so far been more fun than otherwise, even if they haven’t been actually good, but I’d love it if they would quit calling these atrocities Star Trek.

They’ve taken out everything that was unique and compelling and powerful about Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future and replaced it with space babes and raised eyebrows and ironic detachment. It might be an entertaining spectacle, but it’s not Star Trek in any meaningful way.

Independence Day: Resurgence gets a trailer, is surprisingly exciting

I didn’t think I would care that much about this movie, and I haven’t paid attention to the production news at all, so this was really my first look at it.

Thoughts:

  • Kind of disappointed that they didn’t get James Duval back. I had a huge crush on him in the mid-90s.
  • Thrilled that they got Jeff Goldblum. I’ve had a crush on him since the mid-90s, which is much less weird the older I get.
  • Excellent use of the Independence Day speech.
  • Will definitely be seeing this one at the theatre.

Mockingjay, Part 2 is a satisfying finish to a solidly good-but-not-great film series

It’s an unpopular opinion, to be sure, but I’ve always loved Mockingjay the best of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy. Indeed, it’s a book that is different enough from the first two installments that it could easily have been a standalone novel with just some minor tweaks—and would perhaps have been stronger for it; certainly Catching Fire suffers more than a little from middle book syndrome, but also from too-much-like-the-first-book syndrome, and The Hunger Games could probably all have been condensed into a hundred pages or so. Alas, we live in an epoch of YA book trilogies and an age of turning book trilogies into blockbuster movie tetralogies, so Mockingjay Part 2 is necessarily imperfect. Still, it’s a good movie and a great finish to the series. It almost does the book justice.

The film begins with Katniss testing out her voice for the first time since being strangled by Peeta at the end of Mockingjay Part 1, and this is an excellent, if just a bit too on the nose, opening for a story about a young woman finding her voice. Things quickly get on track, though, and Mockingjay Part 2 is off at a relentless pace towards the ending; it doesn’t feel like almost two and a half hours when it’s over.

Mockingjay Part 2 really shines in its action scenes, which are well-thought-out and deployed at nicely spaced intervals in the film. Of these, by far the best is the long sequence in the sewers beneath the Capitol as Katniss and company try to make their way to President Snow’s mansion so that Katniss can assassinate him. It’s an absolutely harrowing journey, and it manages to be chaotic and tense as well as carried out with obvious purpose. The unleashing of the mutts and the struggle to escape from them was a wonderful incorporation of straight-up horror elements to great effect. It all unfolds perhaps a little too methodically, but as a stylistic choice this works, and it’s reflective of the general visual and tonal melodrama of both of the Mockingjay films.

Speaking of the visual style of this film, it’s very clearly a war movie. Things are grey and dark and gritty and grim, and the violence is—while it’s kept pretty strictly PG-13—enough to be both visually striking and emotionally affecting. The several major character deaths in the film were all handled in ways that implied the awfulness of their ends while never looking right at it, and this is accomplished without feeling coy or disingenuous. It’s a well-considered situation where less really is sometimes more, and in an era of increasingly graphic trauma and death being acceptable to show in film, Mockingjay does a masterful job of showing how much power mere implication can still exert.

Some of the dialogue is a little stilted, and franchise fatigue seems to be lurking just around the slightly frayed corners of some of the main actors’ performances. In particular, Katniss seems bone-weary in this installment in a way that feels like more than just Jennifer Lawrence’s good acting, but it’s not obvious enough to ruin the movie.

What stood out to me more than that was the sad underuse of so many of the secondary and tertiary characters. Katniss’s mother and sister barely appear, which lessens what should be nothing short of complete emotional devastation in the third act. Finnick and Annie’s wedding is similarly rushed and causes similar third act emotional problems. Jena Malone turns in a potentially powerful performance as Johanna Mason, only to have it feel, in the final presentation, as if large portions of it were left on the cutting room floor. The same can be said for Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, both of whom don’t get nearly enough screen time. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch, of course, is at times notably missing from places where he might have played a significant part, which made me sad all over again over the actor’s untimely death.

Some of the very small roles were practically nonexistent. During production, much was made of Gwendoline Christie appearing in Mockingjay, but she only had a role in one relatively small scene early in the movie. Stanley Tucci only showed up momentarily in a couple of Capitol broadcasts, and I don’t think the surviving tributes Beetee and Enobaria even got lines.

The biggest complaints I’ve seen about the film so far, though, have been regarding the execution of the Katniss-Gale-Peeta love triangle throughout the film and the ending of it in general, and I must say I don’t share these criticisms.

While the love triangle did take on increased significance in this final film, I think it was appropriately done and sensitively handled so as not to infringe too much on the other ideas and themes that Mockingjay examines. I could have done without the slightly creepy conversation between Gale and Peeta where they were negotiating a sort of truce while they thought Katniss was sleeping; I’m never a fan of men talking about a woman as if she’s their property, and there’s definitely a kind of proprietary tone here as Gale and Peeta agree that they’ll wait for Katniss to choose between them, as if she doesn’t have any other choices. Katniss’s feelings, on the other hand, were shown beautifully, and it’s easy to follow and relate to Katniss’s emotional arc.

I’ve seen some moaning about the lack of an epic ending, but I can’t help but simply dismiss that as a silly and wrongheaded grievance put forward by people who appear to have missed the point of The Hunger Games series entirely. It turns out that it’s fundamentally anti-fascist, actually, and it’s at its heart a tragedy of Shakespearean proportion. The ambiguity of its ending is essential and, frankly, beautiful, and while it’s well-done in the film I felt that it could have been, if anything, more bittersweet.

All that said, I thought I’d cry more in this movie, but the only thing that really brought the tears was that damn cat.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • I remain disappointed in the look of the mutts. The use of the faces and features (and perhaps the actual dead bodies) of people Katniss knows was an incredible bit of psychological horror in the books, and it’s too bad that none of the movies managed to capture that.
  • Tigris was very close to how I imagined her when I read the book. A+ casting, costuming, and make-up.
  • I hated the casting of Sam Claflin as Finnick, but he really pulled it off this film.
  • I love Effie so much, and of all the underused characters in this movie, she was the one whose absence I felt most keenly.
  • I love the visual language of the scene of Snow’s execution. It reminds me a lot of the early scenes in Rome in Julie Taymor’s 1999 Titus (which is a great film—go watch it), and there are a lot of interesting parallels between Katniss’s and Titus Andronicus’s respective positions as potential kingmakers. I feel like there’s no way this is accidental, and someone should definitely write a scholarly piece on this.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War just made it onto my must-see list

So, first I saw these amazing character posters:

TheHuntsmanWintersWarPosters

And while I still don’t understand how this movie has managed to get all three of these women on board, I was kind of excited.

I actually rather liked Snow White and the Huntsman to begin with, and I was disappointed when Kristen Stewart got booted from the sequel. The huntsman was the most boring part of that movie, and I honestly don’t care to see a movie about him at all. However, it looks like this one isn’t going to be. Or, it is, but it’s also going to be about a big magical war with two evil queens in it this time. Plus Jessica Chastain.

At least that’s what I got out of the trailer when I finally watched it today. I’m not sure it makes a lick of sense, but there’s basically no universe in which I don’t go see this movie just to see Charlize Theron and Emily Blunt vamping around in gorgeous costumes. If the film is at all coherent, that’ll just be a bonus.

5 SFF Adaptations That Would Greatly Improve Genre Diversity in TV and Film

Another day, another list of upcoming SFF adaptations that is a big, depressing sausage fest.

I feel like the common wisdom on the issue of diversity in media is that things are improving, but it’s very telling when just a quick count of the properties listed on this list of upcoming or possibly upcoming book-to-film/television adaptations shows forty based on work by men, but only five based on work by women. It probably goes without saying, but there are also only a couple of people of color on the list.

Moving on to the subjects of the projects, things are somewhat better, but not much. A full half of the projects focus on men’s stories, more if you count ensemble projects whose main characters are men. Only two projects are primarily about women. It’s a depressing toll, especially when we’d all like to believe that television and film are improving in diversity. If this list represents any improvement at all, it’s not good enough.

I don’t pretend to know exactly what would be good enough, but there are numerous books and comics that I think would improve the film and television landscape. Certainly, any of these would be significantly more interesting than another crop of shows starring square-jawed white dudes.

  1. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
    Space opera has gotten popular again, and this one is very good. I’d love to see it as an ongoing television series, though that would require some expansion upon the source material. However, the novel itself is very episodic in nature, being told as a sequence of vignettes, each one focusing on a different character. This would lend itself well to being adapted as a miniseries or as a short series on a digital platform such as Netflix or Amazon, or it could be easily streamlined into a long film. The major downside of this book is that the high number of alien characters would require expensive special effects to produce, but the right production company could create something really wonderful if they were willing to spend the money on it.
  2. Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
    This book just begs to be made into a big summer blockbuster a la Independence Day. I want to see it at the drive-in.
  3. Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
    Like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but more fun. Either film the book as it is for a delightful miniseries, or start where the book ends and continue the adventures of Prunella and Zacharias. Or both. Both would be good.
  4. God’s War by Kameron Hurley
    While I’m not often a fan of just lifting characters from a book and writing all new stories around them for television, Kameron Hurley’s Beldame Apocrypha would be perfect for that treatment. Nyx is an amazing character of a type that doesn’t often get to be female, and her shifting crew of associates would make great fodder for a gritty sci-fi bounty hunter sort of thing. The world and characters Hurley created in this series are more than strong enough to carry a long-running television show, which would allow some of the bigger plots of the books to be explored at leisure.
  5. The Just City by Jo Walton
    The goddess Athena gathers thinkers and dreamers from all ends of history in order to build Plato’s Republic. Apollo decides to become human so he can grow up as a child in the Just City. There are robots. And Socrates. And philosophical debates out the wazoo. I would watch this on TV, and I think I’m not the only one.

Obviously, I’m not saying no more square-jawed white dudes, ever, but all of these suggestions would make for a very nice change in the current landscape of entertainment. They would be even better if we could get more diversity behind the camera and in writing rooms for them as well.

The truth is that every time there are new surveys of the industry, it’s proven over and over again that the needle of diversity hasn’t moved much in thirty years. While there have been somewhat more actors of color in highly visible roles, it’s simply not true that things have really improved that much overall. The same can be said for the presence of women in cinema, and those who don’t fit neatly into the gender binary fare even worse.

Any (but preferably all) of the five works I suggest here would be a step in a better direction.