Tag Archives: movie reviews

Advantageous is a perfect rainy day feminist sci-fi film

I tend to be skeptical of serious-looking science fiction films that I don’t hear about before they show up on Netflix, but I was interested in Advantageous when I learned that it was written and directed by Asian American women (Jennifer Phang and Jacqueline Kim, who also stars). I got really interested in it when I saw that it was being trumpeted as great feminist science fiction, although I still half expected it would be another entry in the enormous catalog of overly serious sci-fi movies that just don’t quite work for various reasons. It turns out that Advantageous is actually quite excellent, and is part of the rather smaller catalog of science fiction movies that are sensible, interesting, well-written and nicely filmed.

The film centers on the struggle of Gwen Koh, a single mother, to provide stability and opportunities for her daughter, Jules, in a world where that is increasingly difficult. Gwen is seemingly at a high point in her career when she’s informed that she’s just too old to be the spokesperson for a company whose newest product is a radical anti-aging “treatment” where people literally just get a new, younger body to replace their old one. Advantageous deals with Gwen’s struggle to find other ways to support herself and her daughter, her eventual choice to switch bodies in order to keep her job, and how that decision affects her life.

Advantageous is a movie about compromise–both the ways in which Gwen chooses to compromise and the ways in which she is forced to compromise herself. It’s a movie about the backlash to feminism and women’s liberation and the pressures that women face  because of that backlash. It’s a movie about transformation and growth and rebirth. It’s a movie that examines the ways in which women contribute to their own oppression and how we come to terms with that for ourselves and our daughters. It’s about capitalism and inequality and how unlikely it is that we’re actually building anything like a better future.

It’s a melancholy movie, but it’s also hopeful, though not naively so. I felt at the end that the hope was not so much that whatever comes in the future will be good but that whatever comes in the future we will be able to endure and heal and find enough love and joy to (mostly) keep us going. Also, there are flying cars.

Terminator Genisys is fun, but it doesn’t make a lick of sense

Terminator Genisys is a kind of objectively bad movie, but I genuinely enjoyed it. Probably, this is because my only expectations when I went in were that I was going to see robots and explosions, both of which Genisys delivered in spades.

The biggest problem with Terminator Genisys is the time travel. The Terminator franchise has always been about time travel, so it’s no surprise that it features prominently in Genisys, but the implementation of it just sucks. Basically everyone is time travelling, but there are several different timelines crossing each other and everything just turns into a big old mess.

It’s not terribly convoluted, really, but the mechanism by which all this stuff happens just doesn’t make sense at all. Something something time energy or some nonsense. Terminator Genisys is the sort of time travel story where the writers seem to have realized (incorrectly) that by waving their hands and shouting “alternate timeline!” they could pretty much change things up however they wanted to. It’s absurd if you spend more than about two seconds thinking about any of it, but it does manage to make Genisys more of a reboot than a sequel, and I think it’s in some ways a successful reboot. Certainly, there’s plenty of room left at the end for sequels in this timeline.

 

With the casting of Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith as Skynet/Genisys, all this time energy and time being rewritten stuff feels a little too on the nose. At the same time, I think any Who reference being made is going to go right over the heads of most of Genisys‘s target audience, which is presumably people who know enough about Terminator to be interested in seeing this movie. I just don’t see there being a ton of overlap between folks who want to see Terminator 5 and Whovians. And, really, if they were trying to draw the Whovian crowd to the theater, I would have thought they’ve spend more time using Matt Smith in their promotion of the movie. Perhaps the reason that didn’t happen is because Matt Smith’s character is perhaps the least sense-making thing in the movie. He plays the physical-ish embodiment of Skynet, and he seems to know basically everything, with no explanation for how he knows so much. Other than plot convenience, of course.

hr_Terminator_Genisys_3Emilia Clarke is fine as Sarah Connor. Although she seems to be slightly exasperated throughout the whole movie, it’s certainly a much less wooden performance than she usually turns in as Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones. When it comes to the actual action scenes, she does a credible job of projecting a toughness that belies her tiny stature.

Jai Courtney is little more than a pretty face in the role of Kyle Reese, which is really all he needs to be. Jason Clarke as John Connor shows up. I love J.K. Simmons, so I was sad that his character wasn’t used in a smarter manner, and the same goes for Dayo Okeniyi, who is criminally underused. The real surprise for me was how well Arnold Schwartzenegger performed. Certainly he was greatly aided by CGI and body doubles,  but he was likable–even lovable. I’m not sure that terminators really ought to be lovable, but I think it worked here, and the couple of moments in the movie where I had feelings other than “cool explosion!” or “awesome robot!” were moments involving Schwartzenegger.

Terminator Genisys isn’t a good movie. It’s not a feminist movie, for all that it does include a pretty badass heroine. It manages to not be offensive in any particular way that I can think of, which is nice. However, the best thing I can say about it, if I’m honest, is that I had fun, and that is only because I purposefully kept my expectations low and chose to turn my brain off as much as possible.

 

Inside Out is Pixar at its tear-jerking best

I knew that Inside Out was going to be a special film all the way back when it first announced, but I wasn’t at all prepared for what I saw when I finally got to the theater to see the finished product. The promotion for the film, including trailers, was deliberately vague on plot and focused til the very end on selling the concept, which is admittedly, well, not weird, but definitely unusual, especially for a children’s movie. It was a little bit of a frustrating tactic for me since I kind of love having as much info as possible before I see a movie, but in the end I was very happy that there were so many surprises in store for me–because they were all wonderful.

The framing of the film is simple: Riley moves with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco, and she’s got feelings about it. The real story, of course, is inside Riley’s head, where Joy has been in charge for almost twelve years and doesn’t know how to handle things when Riley’s other emotions–Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness–start to overpower her. Early on, we learn that most of what Joy does is try and manage Sadness, whose purpose she doesn’t really understand. Joy and Sadness are sucked out of Headquarters (get it?!) together, and the bulk of the movie is their journey back.

And it’s a pretty epic journey, when it’s presented the way Pixar has done here.

Visually, Inside Out is stunning, which is to be expected in any Pixar movie, but the attention to detail and the sheer amount of love and care poured into the work here is incredible. To create the mind of a child as a landscape is a task that could easily have turned hokey, but they’ve really nailed it here, building a place in Riley’s head that is both fanciful and grounded deeply in reality. I know that there are all kinds of experts praising the movie for its accurate portrayal of the interplay between Riley’s emotions, but I think the real achievement is in a depiction of a child’s inner life that feels intuitively correct and relatable for the average viewer. It’s not that things in Inside Out are real, but they feel like they might be, or maybe like they ought to be, from the islands of Riley’s personality to the enormous complex of memory shelves that wind around in a way that, when viewed from above, is vaguely reminiscent of actual brain matter.

The character design is excellent. The emotions are, in my opinion, perfectly realized, and I love how none of them are really quite solid. Rather, they seem to be made of millions of tiny, shifting dots mixed with glitter, granting them all a sort of ethereal presence. The characters that Joy and Sadness encounter on their journey are similarly well-drawn, and the use of textures is just amazing in general. The wide array of people that Riley interacts with seems purposefully intended to reflect the diversity of San Francisco in the real world, which is also nice.

All of the voice actors are well-suited to their roles. Amy Poehler (Joy) and Phyllis Smith (Sadness) are lovely together as these sort of polar opposite characters. I can’t imagine anyone but Lewis Black in the role of Anger, and Mindy Kaling and Bill Hader were wisely cast as Disgust and Fear. However, Richard Kind steals the whole show as Riley’s imaginary friend, who helps Joy and Sadness along their way.

Inside Out is one of those rare films that I really think everyone ought to see. It’s so much more than just a children’s movie; in fact, I would say that its prime audience will be ages ten and up. While little ones may enjoy the colors and the funny voices, the majority of Inside Out‘s ideas will go right over their heads. It’s a movie about growing up, laser-focused on looking at the particular moments in which we transition from being children to being adolescents, which makes it useful and informative for anyone going through that change right now and heart-wrenching for those of us who remember going through it.

Personally, I was crying within the first five minutes of the movie, and I’m not sure I quite stopped until the credits rolled. If you see only one movie this summer, make it Inside Out. If you have a tween-aged kid in your life, be sure to take them with you. Then, be sure to talk about it afterwards.

Jurassic World is exactly what I expected it to be

Jurassic World is full of dinosaurs, which is pretty much all I wanted. I went to the drive-in (which I highly recommend, as in my opinion this is the best way to see these sorts of movies) to see dinosaurs eat people, and that’s exactly what I got.

It’s not a cinematic masterpiece, and the story isn’t great or even very good. I’m still not entirely sure I understand why the military would think training dinosaurs for battle would be a good idea, and I don’t really understand what B.D. Wong was getting out of the arrangement since he was already living in paradise getting to make dinosaurs for a living. I also don’t know whether the parents actually got divorced or not, which I guess doesn’t really matter, since all of the characters were basically cardboard cutouts of people who only existed so we could see a two hour movie about CGI dinosaurs.

Chris Pratt’s velociraptors were predictably silly, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling like it would really be pretty rad to ride a motorcycle with my own personal pack of prehistoric killing machines. The mosasaur was gorgeous, although I don’t see how it could be kept in any way that would be safe for people or healthy for the animal. The pterosaurs were pretty cool, and I loved the dinosaur petting zoo. Of course there’s a dinosaur petting zoo, and it’s adorable.

Bryce Dallas Howard was fine as Claire. I’ve seen some complaints about the shoes she wears throughout the movie, but they’re plain old less-than-two-inch pumps that were perfectly sensible for the day the character planned on having. The way some people went on about the shoes, I rather expected some kind of six inch high spiked monstrosities, but that wasn’t the case, and I actually kind of appreciate the ability of the character to stay tough in a crisis. Honestly, I’m more amazed by her decision to wear a completely white outfit for a full day–personally, I’d have a stain or smudge on it by 10 am on a good day. I also kind of like that she’s the real hero of the movie. Chris Pratt and his raptors have gotten most of the attention, but Claire’s the one who orchestrates the, frankly, epic dinosaur fight at the end of the movie, and it’s nice to see a heroine being rewarded with a man at the end of a story for once rather than the other way around.

My only complaints are, first, that I really like Irrfan Khan and would have liked for him to get more screen time and, second, that the first death of a woman by dinosaur was so damn torturous. Zara’s death felt unnecessarily gruesome and drawn out for someone whose worst trait seems to be that she is easily outwitted by a couple of asshole kids. I know I said that I basically saw this movie just to see dinosaurs eat people, but I’d generally prefer that the really nasty deaths be reserved for actual bad guys.

Finally, the dinosaurs are the real star of this movie, just as they’ve been since Jurassic Park came out in 1993. I have to say that I’m not super impressed with the CGI. It’s okay, but I disagree with the people who say this movie’s dinosaurs are as good as the originals. It may just be that there’s no way I’m ever going to quite recapture what it felt like to see Jurassic Park when I was ten years old, but I felt like the comment in Jurassic World that people want their dinosaurs bigger, with “more teeth” is also true of audiences now.

Jurassic World is so packed full of dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes that they do start to seem a little commonplace. While there are a couple of new species in this movie, the overall look of the dinosaurs is the same as it’s ever been. It’s at once comforting and boring, to be honest. I do think that for it to still be a Jurassic Park movie, they can’t change the raptors or the t-rex that are so emblematic of the brand, but it would have been nice to see at least some of the last twenty-odd years of paleontological advancement shown on screen.

The indomitus rex and mosasaur were neat, but I’m starting to be a little concerned about the responsibility of continuing to portray dinosaurs in the same way they were shown decades ago. Jurassic Park was the definitive dinosaur movie of my generation, and I’ll probably always get teary-eyed watching the first big dinosaur reveal, but I’d hate to think that dinosaurs were being defined the same way for my daughter’s generation when we know so much more about them now.

Mad Max: Fury Road is the best two hour car chase you should be watching right now

Valkyrie
Megan Gale as the Valkyrie.

If you only see one movie this summer, make sure it’s Mad Max: Fury Road. I haven’t enjoyed a movie so much in years, and I can’t remember any time that I’ve come away from a film with so little to complain about.

Fury Road begins with a short introduction to Max, but he’s shortly captured and taken to  Immortan Joe’s citadel to be used as a blood bag. There’s a lot of worldbuilding going on here, and within he first ten minutes or so of the movie you get a pretty good idea of the post-apocalyptic world that George Miller envisions. Fans of his older Mad Max movies will recognize the aesthetic, which (refreshingly) avoids the gloom and doom that has become characteristic of the post-apocalyptic and dystopian genre (and, really, of sci-fi and fantasy in general) over the last few years. The darkness here is more akin to the surrealism of a Heironymus Bosch painting than the soul-crushing grimness of Game of Thrones or a Christopher Nolan film. While there’s not a lot of color (the palette sticks to shades of sand and black for high contrast) and there is a lot of dirt, Fury Road still manages to be full of light and warmth that endures even through night scenes.

Doof Warrior
The Doof Warrior

The plot is simple, and the movie is light on dialogue. I’m not being facetious or hyperbolic when I say it’s a two hour car chase. It is literally two hours of car chase, punctuated with stops for repairs. It’s an incredible spectacle, made even more amazing by the knowledge that Miller prefers to eschew CGI in favor of stunts and conventional effects. It’s also notable that, while there’s a lot of violence, there’s very little graphic violence. Indeed, much of the film’s violence is only implied. People die, but there are no long, lingering shots on dead bodies. People are injured, but there are no enormous blood splatters. Women have been kept as sex slaves for breeding and for milk, but there’s no explicit sexual violence on screen. Most of the violence is conveyed through explosions and flamethrowers and cars with spikes ramming into each other, and it’s all set to the aggressive rock music provided by the Doof Warrior (pictured above).

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The wives (clockwise from back left): The Dag (Abbey Lee), Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton), Capable (Riley Keogh), The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whitely), and Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz)

Speaking of women, Fury Road is just full of them. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is an excellent hero, with an appropriate amount of depth of character for the type of movie she’s in. Immortan Joe’s five runaway wives each have a personality of their own, and all of them are shown to be tough and resourceful along with Furiosa. The Vuvalini of Many Mothers, who Furiosa and company meet in the desert, are also amazing and are part of the coolest fight/chase sequence in the film. At the same time, George Miller doesn’t shove any of these women into the normal Strong Female Character box that is generally reserved for women in action flicks. Just the sheer number of women included creates plenty of room for them to be different from each other, and in addition to being badass fighters and all around tough broads, the women of Fury Road get to be frightened, sad, kind, nurturing, and gentle as well as brave and defiant. Even Furiosa, who it would have been very easy to turn into a caricature-like collection of girl power tropes, doesn’t have to be an automaton of “strength” all the time, and it’s very nice to see an action heroine who understands the value of community and the wisdom of being able to depend on others sometimes.

pacnv9d5s2ov5i0qt2pxWhat I love most about the women of Fury Road, however, is that none of them are grossly sexualized. The wives where diaphanous, skimpy white outfits, but there was never a shot that perved on their bodies–which is nice, since they are survivors of rape and reproductive coercion who are fleeing the man who abused them. There are no long, slow pans up from crotch to tits. There are no artfully posed bodies for maximized boner potential. There is no absurdly and inexplicably perfect hair and makeup in the post-apocalyptic desert car chase. Instead, everyone looks filthy and sweaty and slightly unhealthy, covered in dust and engine filth and definitely not packaged for male consumption.

All this said, there are a couple of issues with the film.

First, for me, the milking mothers were a bit of a sour note. I know that this is a post-apocalyptic world and all, but this seemed a little over-the-top, and it felt somewhat gratuitous and done for shock value. I think I would have felt differently if these women were given the same level of attention and agency as the wives, but we barely see them.

Second, for a post-apocalyptic Australia, everyone is awful white. It does seem to me that I saw some darker faces in the crowd scenes at Immortan Joe’s citadel, but I feel like I could have blinked and missed them. And I know that several of the women characters are women of color, but including a couple of women who are approximately the same color as the sand everyone is covered with maybe doesn’t count as diversity, especially when the main characters are all so, so white.

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-cars-700Still, Mad Max: Fury Road is an excellent film, with a strong (if fairly uncontroversial) eco-feminist message and a cast so full of women that the Bechdel Test need not even be mentioned as a metric to judge it by. It’s a big, beautiful action film with a great adventure and no romance. There are rad vehicles covered in spikes and enormous explosions and beautiful scenery and awesome fight scenes.

Mostly, it’s just great fun to watch, and when the movie ended I could have watched it again right away. I’m definitely looking forward to watching it over and over again at home when it comes to DVD/Blu-ray.