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Because you can’t possibly have enough “Best Of The Year” lists on the Internet.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: If yr favorite movie of 2018 isn’t here, it’s likely because (1) I didn’t get a chance to see it, (2) it hasn’t been released in Hong Kong yet, or (3) I did see it but didn’t like it as much as you did. Also, if some of these seem kind of old, it’s because their release date was 2017 for yr country, but 2018 for Hong Kong. See?

TOP TEN DEF FILMS OF 2018

1. The Shape of Water
In which Guillermo del Toro basically reimagines Creature From The Black Lagoon as a love story, in which the creature is held in a secret govt lab for cruel experiments, where mute cleaning woman Elisa bonds with him. It’s as weird and tragic as you’d expect, and it’s a nice twist on a classic horror movie.

2. 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
I went in not really knowing much about it apart from the cast and the director – both of which were enough to convince me to see it. I really enjoyed Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, and any film with Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell seems like a good bet. It was – it’s a powerful story about what happens when the rage of loss is compounded by injustice, and the depths people sink to when desperation sets in.

3. Muppet Guys Talking
This Frank Oz documentary was originally filmed in 2012, and Oz sat on the footage for years before finally having the time to edit it down to a feature-length doc. The title says it all – it’s mainly five Muppet performers (Oz, Jerry Nelson, Fran Brill, Dave Goelz and Bill Barretta) sitting in a room talking about Muppet history, the characters they played, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and Jim Henson. It’s a simple concept, and it works wonderfully – all five performers are good storytellers and have plenty of great anecdotes to share. Essential for anyone who’s a Muppet fan.

4. Black Panther
I only saw a couple of MCU films last year (Infinity War was not one of them because I’ve been assured it’s really for fans only, a.k.a. people who have seen all the MCU films and remember every detail about them), but Black Panther was by far the best of the bunch for me for a couple of reasons: (1) it’s a character I’m not as familiar with, compared to Captain America, Hulk Iron Man, etc, so it offered something different, and (2) the rich worldbuilding of Wakanda, and reasonably well-developed characters (by MCU standards, anyway), to include the villain, Killmonger. Like with all MCU films, the rollercoaster CGI action is overdone, but that’s the price of admission.

5. All The Money In The World
The strange but true tale of the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III, which I only tried because Ridley Scott is usually a dependable director and he’s good at this kind of film. Of course the race to find Paul and secure his release is interesting, but the film also succeeds as a family drama and an indictment of greed so engrained that it will drive people to put money before family. It’s flawed in places, and of course they made up some of it. But I’ve learned to expect that with “true” stories. DISCLAIMER: It was only after seeing it that I found out this was the film where Kevin Spacey was edited out and replaced by Christopher Plummer. All I’ll say is that it looked seamless to me – I’d never have guessed if TwitterBook hadn’t told me.

6. Isle Of Dogs
I’ve said before Wes Anderson is one of those directors you either like or you don’t, and this doesn’t change that. This animated homage to Japanese cinema is one of his better films – not quite as good as Fantastic Mr Fox, mainly because the characterization isn't as strong, due to it being more of an ensemble cast. But it’s full of Anderson’s usual dark humor and visual panache.

7. Bohemian Rhapsody
Oh, YOU know. And I have to say that as flawed as it is – and it is flawed, from the standard dialogue and rock’n’roll clichés to the unnecessary revisionist history (“Fat Bottomed Girls” coming out in 1974, Freddie Mercury adopting his Tom From Finland look in the late 70s, etc) – I liked it. I think it’s partly because the music is great, the cast (not just Rami Malek, but everyone) really look and act like the band, and I’ve read interviews with Brian May who says the film isn’t meant to be real life but a “painting” of Freddie, so I figure if he’s okay with it, why should I complain? That said, I maintain that if you’re going to call the film Bohemian Rhapsody, there should be at least one sequence in the film where they play the whole song through in its entirety.

8. Early Man
The latest animated film from Nick Park. I think I would have liked this less if I’d seen any trailers for it – it’s more fun to watch it unexpectedly go from a prehistoric comedy to a satire of English football. Once it does, it’s pretty predictable, and there are moments where I felt they could have done a little more with the material. But it’s still a goofy, fun and enjoyable film.

9. Incredibles 2
I don’t think we really needed an Incredibles sequel, but we got one anyway, and it’s pretty good for what it is, maintaining more or less the quality level of the first one, as well as the themes of how vigilante superheroes don’t quite fit into a world of real-world laws and regulations, and the challenges of raising kids with superpowers. Anyway, it’s one of the better superhero movies on 2018.

10. Solo: A Star Wars Story
I have so much to say about this, and you can read it all here. For the capsule review, I’ll just say that as a straight-up big-budget space-adventure film, it’s actually pretty good fun. As a Star Wars film, it’s predictable as far as the established characters are concerned (Solo, Chewbacca and Lando), and it doesn't really add much to the characters that we didn’t already know. Also, I’m one of those fans who feels that Han Solo didn’t need an origin story – part of Solo’s appeal has always been his braggadocio and exaggerating his own accomplishments, and the references to the Kessel Run work better when you don’t know how he did it.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Ant-Man and The Wasp
The other decent MCU film of 2018, in which Ant-Man is under house arrest and estranged from the Pyms because of some other MCU film I couldn’t remember, but that changes when it turns out that during the first film he somehow became quantumly entangled with the original Wasp, who is believed lost in the sub-atomic realm. The Ant-Man films get by mainly on having their own specific sense of humor (Paul Rudd and Michael Pena are still great) and the writers having fun with the concept of being able to shrink and enlarge objects and people at will. This one also has a more interesting villain with Ghost.

The Crimes That Bind
This Japanese film is based on the last instalment of the Detective Kaga novels by Keigo Higashino. It’s also the last of the film/TV franchise based on those novels. I haven’t watched those, but I have read one of the novels, and I do like lead actor Hiroshi Abe (who has played Kaga before and does so here), so I gave this a shot. The story involves Kaga helping a young police detective investigate the death of a woman in Shiga in part because he suspects the case has a connection to the unsolved mystery of his own mother’s death 16 years earlier in the same town. Like a lot of Japanese murder mysteries, the truth is both insanely convoluted and melodramatic, and the film gets by mainly by good performances from Abe and Nanako Matsuhima (as a theatre owner who was the last person to see the victim alive).

Mission Impossible: Fallout
By now the M:I franchise template is pretty solid – insane action sequences, insane technology, insane plot twists, insane interdepartmental squabbles, and insane Tom Cruise putting stuntmen out of work. And that’s okay, since the franchise tends to work best when the writers and director embrace the utter insanity of the premise, take the “impossible” part literally and run with it. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie does all of that and more. This time out, Ethan Hunt is out to recover three stolen plutonium MacGuffins that a terrorist group called The Apostles (formed from the remains of The Syndicate, which Hunt defeated in the previous film) are attempting to acquire. Insanity ensues.

Monstrum
A Korean monster movie with a slight twist in that it’s a period piece, taking place in the 15th century during the Joseon era. Following reports of a giant monster killing villagers and spreading a plague, King Jungjong asks disgraced general Yun Kyum to investigate whether the “monstrum” is real or a rumor spread by his political enemies to undermine his leadership and stage a coup. It’s a great set-up for what turns out to be a predictable story with average CG and a cop-out ending, and I think director Huh Jong-ho could have waited longer to reveal the truth behind the monstrum. But for all its flaws, I found it interesting.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

The Meg
Actually, the film overall was better than I expected – not great, but I was entertained. My main disappointment is that Jason Statham didn’t kill the megalodon by kicking its head off.

THE FILM I DIDN’T LIKE THAT EVERYONE ELSE DID

A Wrinkle In Time

My Twitter feed was full of people who loved this live-action version of the classic novel (which was one of my junior-high reading staples), and … well, it didn’t work for me. I thought it just tried too hard to be Amazing (cue “this is Amazing” reaction shots from all the characters every time they arrived at a new planet), the dialogue just doesn't flow at all, and the three Mrs Ws are kind of annoying. And while I understand why Ava DuVerny and the writers stripped out the Christian elements of the book, those elements were also crucial to explaining more or less what is going on and why, and what the Mrs Ws have to do with anything – without that context (or a workable replacement), the result is a generic good vs evil arc with no good explanation as to who the Mrs Ws are and why it’s up to the Murry children to fight IT to save their dad.

THE FRANCHISE THAT REALLY NEEDS TO JUST STOP NOW

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

This is the direct sequel to Jurassic World, both in terms of bringing back Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard and Blue The Velociraptor, and in terms of the fact that the whole story depends on just about everyone besides them being a complete and utter idiot with absolutely no memory of anything that happened in the previous films. The “save the dinos” angle is interesting in that it echoes the original film’s point that the regenerated dinosaurs are in a sense victims of man’s arrogance, but the bad guy plot is beyond ludicrous and the set-up for the next film isn't that convincing.

The balcony is closed,

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I meant to post this ages ago, and I’m obviously late to this discussion, but with a Top 10 Films list about to be published, I figured I could post this for posterity to fulfil my obligations as both a blogger and a Star Wars fan.

So anyway, back in October I finally saw Solo: A Star Wars Story, which was a flop by Star Wars standards. My not so hot take:

1. I went in with low expectations – and it probably helped. As a straight-up big-budget space-adventure film, it’s actually pretty good on its own merits, especially if you can forget that the main character is supposed to be the Han Solo of the original Star Wars trilogy – which surprisingly isn’t all that hard, since Aldren Ehrenreich plays Solo his own way rather than try to do an Harrison Ford impression, which very likely would not have worked even if it was a good impersonation.

2. However, it IS part of the Star Wars canon, and the three main problems for me were (1) the Kasdans tried too hard to reference the original films (did we really need another scene of TIE fighters chasing the Millennium Falcon through a field of space debris?), (2) it’s often predictable as far as the established characters are concerned (Solo, Chewbacca and Lando), and (3) it doesn't really add much to the characters that we didn’t already know. Also, I’m one of those fans who feels that Han Solo didn’t need an origin story – part of Solo’s appeal has always been his braggadocio and exaggerating his own accomplishments, and the references to the Kessel Run work better when you don’t know how he did it.

3. On the other hand, Solo is a fun movie. It’s been criticized for being lightweight compared to The Last Jedi and even Rogue One, but since the original film succeeded as a fun space adventure, I can’t be too hard on Solo for attempting the same – surely there’s room in the SW canon for different kinds of films.

Maybe you can say Solo plays it too safe and doesn’t take chances compared to TLJ and R1, and that's true. But that’s how it is with prequels featuring established and beloved characters – yr beholden to the future to the point that you can't monkey around with it too much. Which is why I’d really rather that future standalones introduce new characters (as Rogue One did) and tell new stories that don’t simply fill in the blanks (as Rogue One also did, ultimately).

Indeed, the biggest problem with Solo isn’t that it’s fun, but that it doesn’t contribute anything to the canon apart from character backstory that, as I say, we arguably didn’t need. The original Expanded Universe that Disney eventually scrapped proved that there’s plenty of room in the Star Wars universe for innovation and new ideas – the new batch of post-Lucas Star Wars films have also proven that. By comparison, sticking with established characters feels like a step backwards to me.

4. I don’t think that’s why it flopped – I think that’s ultimately down to Disney’s overambitious decision to release it just six months after TLJ, and at a time when it had to compete with other major Disney franchise tentpoles. But I also think releasing a film featuring a younger version of such an iconic set of characters was always going to set the film up for disappointment.

So overall: I think it’s a fun film, and the second best prequel film, but of the Star Wars films to date, I would rank it pretty much below everything that isn’t the Lucas prequel trilogy.

Punch it,

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Because you can’t possibly have enough “Best Of The Year” lists on the Internet.

And I should mention right off the bat that I managed to see exactly twelve (12) new films this year, and two of them don’t count because they were released in 2016, so this is less of a Top 10 and more of a Literally Every New Film I Saw in 2017 + Two From 2016.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: If yr favorite movie of 2017 isn’t here, it’s likely because (1) I didn’t get a chance to see it, (2) it hasn’t been released in Hong Kong yet, or (3) I did see it but didn’t like it as much as you did. Also, if some of these seem kind of old, it’s because their release date was 2016 for yr country, but 2017 for Hong Kong. See?

TOP TEN DEF FILMS OF 2017

1. Silence
Martin Scorsese’s epic film about two 17th century Jesuit priests in the who travel to very non-Christian-friendly Japan to find their missing mentor. Some may find it slow, but I found it very engrossing as the priests are increasingly forced to question their faith as they encounter the suffering of persecuted Christians and are persecuted themselves. The film asks hard questions about the balance between true faith and moral pragmatism and provides no easy answers – which is wise, because no film is going to settle centuries-old theological quagmires in a few hours. It’s thought-provoking and exhausting and totally worth it.

2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
You can read my longer review here, but long-story short: This is the best Disney-era Star Wars movie to date (and the other two are really good, mind), and possibly the third-best Star Wars film ever made. It’s got all the action and humor you want in a Star Wars film, plus extra points for having the guts to mess with the formula enough to (hopefully) take the series in new directions without being held back by the baggage of the earlier films.

3. Arrival
Based on a Ted Chiang short story, this film starts in familiar territory – mysterious aliens arrive in ships that hover over the earth – and then eschews blockbuster action for a thoughtful story in which linguist Louise Banks is brought in by the US military to try and communicate with the aliens. The sequences of decoding alien language are fascinating, and the movie explores a couple of distinct themes: the risks of miscommunication and the consequences of knowing the future, and the impact this may or may not have on our decisions. My kind of sci-fi.

4. Blade Runner 2049
I don’t know that we needed a sequel to Blade Runner 35 years after the original came out, but if we had to have one, this is pretty much what you’d want – a very good-looking film that takes the same world and creates a story that doesn’t ape the first film and doesn’t depend on you having seen the first one to be understood. Here, replicants are integrated into society as a servant class – one replicant, K, works as a blade runner and by chance discovers the 30-year-old remains of a replicant that appears to have given birth, which has serious implications all round. Like the first film, BR2049 explores themes of identity, memory and sentience, but in a more expanded form – and thankfully it doesn’t take the most predictable path storywise.

5. Hidden Figures
The (mostly) true story of Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan – three black women who played key roles in the early days of the NASA space program. As with most Hollywood biopics, the movie simplifies a complex story and setting with fictional composite characters, and isn't above swapping historical accuracy for drama – but it does a good job of getting the basic story across in terms of what Goble, Jackson and Vaughan accomplished and the racial challenges they faced in doing so. Also, I likes me a good NASA drama – and the three main actresses (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) are very, very good. It feels a bit TV-movie-of-the-week, but it tells a good story that (hopefully) will encourage people to look up the real history of Goble, Jackson and Vaughan.

6. Hell or High Water
Crime thriller which the Howard Brothers rob branches of the same bank that is threatening to foreclose on their family ranch, while a Texas Ranger close to retirement tries to figure out who they are and where they’ll hit next. The characters are rather cliché (one brother is the handsome reluctant bank robber, the other is the unpredictable loose cannon, and the Texas Ranger is the Crusty Cynical But Smart Lawman), but it’s reasonably well written for this kind of genre, and good performances all around, particularly Jeff Bridges as the Ranger.

7. War for the Planet Of The Apes
The third installment of the reboot series, in which Caesar is forced to hunt down a renegade US Army Colonel whose men attacked Caesar’s home and killed some of his family. The film introduces some more tropes that will eventually lead to the ‘Planet Of The Apes’ scenario of the original film, but also focuses on Caesar’s struggle to not let the war turn him into Koba, the human-hating ape that rebelled against Caesar in the previous film. I thought the Colonel character was a little too influenced by Colonel Kurtz, but Woody Harrelson is generally good to watch. Overall, it’s pretty good, and marks a rare example of a trilogy where the third film is better than the first (though I think the second one is arguably the best of the three, but it’s an admittedly close call).

8. Alien: Covenant
Ridley Scott’s follow-up to Prometheus, in which a ship on its way to colonize a planet is damaged en route, and while the crew assesses the situation, they pick up a radio signal from a different planet. Unwisely, they go check it out, and that’s where we eventually find out what happened to the survivors of the previous film. Sound familiar? One reviewer described this film as an Alien Greatest Hits comp, and I can’t add much to that – it’s another compendium of body horror, suspicious androids, humans making bad decisions, etc, and it really doesn't add much new to the series. And yet Scott still manages to make it riveting viewing. It’s alright as Alien films go, but it’s getting hard to see the point of doing these if they’re not going to take it in a new direction as Prometheus seemed to promise.

9. Wonder Woman
Diana, Warrior Princess! Wonder Woman finally gets her own movie, in which her life on the hidden Amazon island of Themiscyra is disrupted when pilot Steve Trevor accidentally brings WW1 to the island. Believing WW1 to be the work of Ares, the god who is prophesied to return from exile and get humans to destroy each other, Diana sets off with Trevor to find Ares and stop him. Overall I think they did the character justice, and Gal Gadot is great, but I think they spent way too long on the exposition/origin part, and as superhero stories go, it doesn’t offer any real surprises. That said, it’s still well above average for the genre.

10. Going In Style
A remake of the 1979 film in which three senior citizens decide to stage a bank robbery after the company they work for is bought out and liquidates their pensions as part of the merger. The film gets by mainly on the strength of its cast – Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin, who are funny and likeable. Apart from that, the film suffers in comparison to the original film, which was darker but had a lot to say about growing old in America. On the other hand, if you prefer a version of that story that’s a light-hearted caper film with happy endings for everyone, maybe you’ll like this one better.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years
I missed this when it came out in theatres, but in 2017 I watched it on a long-haul flight – three times. I’ve always known the Beatles cut their teeth doing lots of live gigs before they started recording, and I’ve seen a few clips like the Ed Sullivan appearances and the screaming teenage girls, etc, but this documentary really showcases just how great and exciting a live band they were, and tells the story well about their various live tours, and why they eventually stopped doing concerts altogether.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Another 2016 documentary, this one by Werner Herzog, which takes a look at the coming “connected world”, in which everything will be connected to the internet and our lives will increasingly revolve around digital services – likely to the point of dependency in some form or other. This being Herzog, it’s not a chronicle of how these technologies evolved and how they work, but rather a meditation on the potential impact they have for humanity – both the positive and the negative. Herzog treats the subject like a museum tour, marveling at the possibilities of such technologies yet wondering about the dark side of ti all – from online gaming addiction, doxxing, and social media abuse (such as one family whose daughter died in a car crash, only for the gruesome crash photos to go viral, after which trolls emailed them to the family for kicks) to the notion that as the internet becomes the critical infrastructure on which society is based, it will take one inevitable solar flare of sufficient size to send us back to the 21st century equivalent of the Stone Age. It’s by no means comprehensive or conclusive, but it’s a unique approach to a topic I happen to cover as part of my day job.

THE FILM I DIDN’T LIKE THAT EVERYONE ELSE DID

Nocturnal Animals
A lot of people raved about how good this was, but I tried watching it on a long-haul flight and I got through about 15 minutes worth before I got bored and turned it off.

THE FILM I REALLY WANTED TO SEE BUT DIDN’T GET A CHANCE TO

The Girl With All The Gifts
A zombie movie with a difference – well, potentially. I read the novel by MR (Mike) Carey and loved it – and Carey wrote the novel in parallel with the screenplay version, so my assumption is the film sticks close to the basic post-apocalyptic story of a young girl being studied by military scientists because – unlike other people who have been turned into zombies – she can still think and learn. Somehow I missed it. Oh well, I'll see it one day.

The balcony is closed,

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I have seen Episode 8.

And I liked it. A lot. I loved it, actually. This may or not be because I managed to go in without seeing so much as a trailer for it, so I had no idea what to expect, apart from two things: (1) it was presumably going to continue the story from the ending of The Force Awakens (TFA) where Rey hands Luke the lightsaber, and (2) I saw a headline that some fans were apparently so pissed off with whatever happened in the story that they petitioned Disney to delete The Last Jedi (TLJ) from the canon and remake it [LINK CONTAINS SPOILERS].

And so:

1. I think TLJ is not only a solid Star Wars film, but it’s also better than TFA – which was a very good Star Wars film whose main weakness was relying too much on fan service and retreading old ground. TLJ keeps that to a bare minimum, for the most part, and is actually better written overall, not least because Rian Johnson (finally) takes some chances and takes the character set-ups from TFA in directions that break from the standard SW template. TLJ also adds some welcome depth as it touches on the moral ambiguities of war, the consequences of ignoring orders (even with the best intentions) and the true nature of the Force – and it does all this while delivering a well-paced, action-packed space opera.

2. I have no complaints about the story’s explanation for why Luke went into exile and what happened between him and Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. Some fans have complained, but for me it all makes sense, given the events of Episodes 1 to 3, and given everything we know about Luke and his family history. Moreover, it enables the Star Wars films to further break away from the old Skywalker story that defines the first six episodes (and TFA, to an extent) and develop something new. I don’t know that they will. But they’ve certainly set up the opportunity to do so.

Let’s put it this way: Mark Hamill initially didn’t like Johnson’s take on Luke either – but now having seen the finished product, he’s admitted Johnson got it right after all.

3. Speaking of Luke, while pretty much the entire cast is good, I have to say, Mark Hamill is just superb as old, bitter Luke. I never thought he was a bad actor, but I remember some people giving him stick for his acting in the original trilogy. Well, if he couldn’t act then, he sure as heck can now.

4. Complaints? Well, it’s a bit too long for a SW film. Another minor complaint is that certain story elements that basically rely on the First Order not being all that smart. There were several scenes in which the First Order probably could ended the war (and the film) a lot earlier if the commanding officers had more sense.

5. I’m also not sure how I feel about THAT scene with Leia – apart from being somewhat implausible (even by Star Wars standards) it just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the film, not least because there’s no explanation for it. Based on what little I’ve read after seeing the film, I’m assuming it was written as a set-up for Leia’s development in Episode 9, but sadly, that may be a moot point now that Carrie Fisher is gone (Disney has said they’re not planning to do a CGI version of Leia for Episode 9). Anyway, maybe it’ll make more sense to me later.

6. Anyway, it’s safe to say that Disney is on a roll here. They’ve put out three Star Wars movies, and every one of them are worthy of the name, and I think TLJ is arguably the best of the bunch precisely because it messes with the formula and primes Star Wars for new horizons.

Which is why I don’t know that I’m looking forward to the upcoming Han Solo movie. Apart from seeing someone else besides Harrison Ford play the character, it’s still basically a prequel trading on past glories. It might still be very good (as Rogue One was), but it’s potentially a step backwards.

Use of force,

This is dF

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Because you can’t possibly have enough “Best Of The Year” lists on the Internet.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: If yr favorite movie of 2016 isn’t here, it’s likely because (1) I didn’t get a chance to see it, (2) it hasn’t been released in Hong Kong yet, or (3) I did see it but didn’t like it as much as you did. Also, if some of these seem kind of old, it’s because their release date was 2015 for yr country, but 2016 for Hong Kong. See?

Also, I didn’t actually watch that many movies in 2016, due to the aforementioned change in work schedule. I’m hoping to change that this year.

TOP TEN DEF FILMS OF 2016

1. A Perfect Day
2. The Big Short
3. Rogue One
4. Ghostbusters
5. Eye In The Sky
6. Hail, Caesar!
7. Trumbo
8. The Hateful Eight
9. Zootopia
10. The Mermaid

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Star Trek: Beyond
Happiness
The Secret Life Of Pets
The Nice Guys


THE FILM I DIDN’T LIKE THAT EVERYONE ELSE DID

A Bigger Splash

MOST POINTLESS REMAKE

The Magnificent 7

MOST POINTLESS SEQUEL

Independence Day: Resurgence

MOST RIDICULOUSLY OVERPOLITICIZED FILM OF 2016 THAT I SAW

Ghostbusters

WORST FILM I SAW IN 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

The long version, blah blah blah )

The balcony is closed,

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I have seen Rogue One. I will opinionize about it now. 

There may be spoilers .... )

War is hell,

This is dF
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Gene Wilder is gone, as you probably know.

I should probably say something – partly because I’m a fan of many of his 70s films, but also because the very first film I remember seeing in a cinema was Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.

Or at least it’s the first live-action film I remember. My parents may have taken me to see a Disney film or two (which would have been either The Jungle Book and/or The Aristocats), but I have no memory of that. But I vividly remember going to see WW&TCF. I was six when it came out, and I remember the contrast between the darkness of Charlie’s world (especially the scene where Slugworth tries to recruit him as an industrial espionage agent) and the bright Technicolor world of Wonka, and I remember the fates of the bad kids, and the twisted horror of the psychedelic riverboat scene (which scared the hell out of me).

And of course I remember Gene Wilder alternately singing, chattering and shouting his way through the picture. Wonka was the first movie character to stick in my head. He’s been there ever since, though it wasn’t until I was older that I realized just how well-constructed a character Wonka was, and how a lot of that was down to Wilder’s brilliant performance.

And then came his work with Mel Brooks – The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein – and Richard Pryor (the first two films, anyway).

By the 80s, I’d lost interest in Wilder after he seemed to just want to do sentimental romantic comedies, a genre which has never really interested me. The Woman In Red in particular seemed to cement his image as the Lionel Richie of Hollywood comedy – politely inoffensive romantic man in a cardigan – at a time when I was getting into horror movies and punk.

But I still enjoy watching him in his 70s heyday. I used to joke that he was one of the Great Shouting Actors Named Gene of my generation (the other one being Gene Hackman). But it’s intended as a compliment.

Incidentally, one Wilder film I’d recommend that isn't a Wonka or Mel Brooks film is The Frisco Kid (1979). You may want to approach with caution because (1) it got mixed reviews and (2) I haven’t seen it for over 30 years. But I remember liking it at the time. If nothing else, you get to see a younger Harrison Ford play cowboy.

Pure imagination,

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I know that most of you are here for one reason only: my half-assed amateur movie reviews.

In which case you may be wondering, “Hey man, aren’t you watching any movies this year?" 

Well, I am, but not that many, and I haven’t had time to write them up here (which is also why I haven't seen that many films this year – it’s been pretty nuts).

So consider yrself caught up with this post.

The Big Short

You wouldn’t think Michael Lewis’ non-fiction books would make good films. But they do. First Moneyball, and now The Big Short, in which a small group of financial investors who realized the supposedly solid US housing market was based on fraud and on the verge of collapse, bet against it and made a fortune. It all works thanks to a combination of top-notch acting and the ability of the screenwriters to simplify the complex financial situation without dumbing it down (the gimmick of using actual celebrities to break the fourth wall and explain the wonky bits is particularly inspired). And the film smartly acknowledges openly that it’s making up some of the dramatic details but the overall story is true. It’s not a trick that would work with every “based on a true story” film but it works here. This is the best film about the 2008 economic crisis I’ve seen so far.

Trumbo

Biopic of Dalton Trumbo, the infamous Hollywood screenwriter who secretly wrote Oscar-winning screenplays while being officially blacklisted by Hollywood during the McCarthy Communist witch hunts. Like most biopics, Trumbo fudges some facts and glosses over certain details – and it makes no secret whose side it’s on as Trumbo faces off with congressmen, John Wayne and gossip queen Hedda Hopper. But it’s not exactly hagiographical either – Trumbo has his flaws, particularly when it comes to his family relationships. And at the heart of it is an interesting story of how Trumbo got around the blacklist. Anyway, I’m a sucker for stories about censorship and Commie witch hunts, so I’m with the choir this film preaches to.

Hail, Caesar!

In which the Coen Brothers pay tribute to 50s Hollywood films by way of a fake story about a real person – studio fixer Eddie Mannix, whose main job was to cover up the scandals of the studio’s stars. The Coens’ Mannix is not as sleazy or ruthless as the real one, but he does spend the film dealing with various problems, the centerpiece of which is the disappearance of Baird Whitlock, the lead actor in the eponymous film, who has been kidnapped by Communist screenwriters. The story meanders somewhat, but that may be intentional, as one of the goals for the Coens here was to create scenes from some of the big genres of post-war Hollywood, from musicals and singing cowboys to sword-and-sandals Biblical epics – which they do with stunning accuracy. The fact that they wrote their own “classic” film scenes instead of recreating existing ones is an achievement in itself. It may not be their best film, but it may be their best technical achievement.

The Hateful Eight

The eighth film by Quentin Tarantino, and the first one of his films I found it hard to get into. Like all his films, it looks great, has good acting, good dialogue and plays with the narration structure a little when it suits Tarantino to do so. The gimmick here is essentially a single-room mystery where people are not what they seem and the characters have to figure out what’s really going on. The problem for me is that there’s really no one very likeable, which is another way of saying there’s no single character you hope makes it out of the situation alive. The film is just too mired in the worst qualities of humans for me to really enjoy it. It’s not bad, it’s just one of those films I’ll probably only watch once.

Zootopia

One doesn’t usually associate buddy-cop films with animated kids films, but Zootopia is just that. Naïve idealist country bunny Judy realizes her dream of becoming the first bunny to join the police force in Zootopia, a city where predators and prey live together in relative harmony. But no one takes her seriously, and to prove herself, she takes a case to find a missing otter, with some unwilling help from Nick, a con-artist fox who is her only lead to the otter’s whereabouts. It probably says a lot that only an animated film with anthropomorphic animals could get away with using a buddy-cop formula as a vehicle to denounce racism, sexism, xenophobia and exploiting fear for political gain. Given current events, it’s arguably one of the more subversive films of the year.

The Mermaid

Steven Chow’s latest film, in which a mermaid is sent to assassinate a greedy billionaire whose development company has savaged her people’s home. It’s pretty much the usual Chow template – the selfish but redeemable protagonist, the goonish leading lady, cheesy CGI and a juxtaposition of madcap humor and senseless, cruel violence that, like most of Chow’s latter-day work, tends to lean more towards the latter. So it helps if you think of it more as a fantasy action film with comedy bits rather than a comedy film with action bits. That said, it’s also Chow’s most message-driven film – which is saying something, considering this is ostensibly a mainland Chinese-produced film that not only criticizes greedy land development but also makes fun of the growing trend of China’s growing (and in many cases irresponsible) millionaires.

Go fish,

This is dF

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Because you can’t possibly have enough “Best Of The Year” lists on the Internet.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: If yr favorite movie of 2015 isn’t here, it’s likely because (1) I didn’t get a chance to see it, (2) it hasn’t been released in Hong Kong yet, or (3) I did see it but didn’t like it as much as you did. Also, if some of these seem kind of old, it’s because their release date was 2014 for yr country, but 2015 for Hong Kong. See?

TOP TEN DEF FILMS OF 2015

1. Inside Out
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
4. Whiplash
5. Ex Machina
6. Selma
7. Chappie
8. Birdman
9. What We Do In The Shadows
10. Bridge Of Spies

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Ant-Man
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
SPECTRE


THE FRANCHISE REVIVAL FILM WE REALLY DIDN’T NEED

Jurassic World

THE FILM I LIKED THAT NO ONE ELSE DID

Chappie

THE FILM I DIDN’T LIKE THAT EVERYONE ELSE DID

Kingsman: The Secret Service

WORST FILM OF 2015

Terminator: Genesys

Director's cut!  )

And that’s that for 2015.

Same time next year,

This is dF
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And now, the movie review you’ve been waiting for all this time.

[NOTE: I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers, but if you haven't seen it yet, by all means wait until you do before reading this.]

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Truly it’s hard to imagine another movie preceded by this much hype and an equivalent amount of baggage from fans who have never forgiven George Lucas for making grim prequels instead of giving them the Star Wars movies they WANTED. Plus, there was all the dithering over the fact that Disney bought Lucasfilm and declared most of the Star Wars Expanded Universe books, comics and games non-canon. Cos you know, Disney ruins everything, right?

Anyway, SW:TFA had a hell of a legacy to live up to, which makes it hard to review it like any other film – unless you’ve never cared about Star Wars, or you liked the films but not to the point of obsession, or you saw them starting with the prequels, or whatever. For myself, I’m from the original Star Wars generation where our young and impressionable lives were changed forever in 1977 by the original film. I didn't expect J.J. Abrams to duplicate that experience – that would be impossible, partly because I’m 50, and partly because part of what made the first Star Wars so amazing was that nothing like it had ever been done visually – Lucas’ team literally had to invent some of the FX techniques that made it work, or take older techniques to new levels. I knew going in that SW:TFA would have none of that – FX-wise, it would use the same techniques as the average Hollywood CGI blockbuster, albeit perhaps to better effect.

So I wasn’t expecting a life-changing experience – I was just hoping Abrams would make a decent Star Wars film that reflects the spirit of the original trilogy – i.e. a fun adventure in space with good characters.

So, with all that in mind, here’s what I have to say about SW:TFA:

1. I loved it.

2. Is it perfect? No – far from it. Plot holes abound, and Abrams and the writers go a little overboard with the fan service, while the story unnecessarily borrows select plot elements from the original trilogy and relies an awful lot on coincidence as a plot lubricant.

3. On the other hand, it’s got far better dialogue than any of the other films, and while the story follows some fairly obvious tropes, it doesn’t come across as a tired rehash.

4. That’s largely because SW:TFA is populated by an interesting new cast of likeable characters – Rey the mysterious Force-sensitive scrap collector, Finn the cowardly but good-hearted Stormtrooper, Poe Dameron the smart-ass pilot and BB-8 the plucky cute droid – to take the baton from the old hands.

5. Speaking of whom, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher do a great job of playing convincing older versions of their respective characters. I do admit being disappointed that Leia doesn’t have as prominent a role as Han, but at least she gets more than a cameo.

6. As the new Bad Guy, Kylo Ren is no Darth Vader, but that’s a good thing. Ren has his own motivations and complications, and actually projects his own brand of menace – until the mask comes off, but even then he comes across as a character someone put some thought into.

7. All up, is it as good as the original film? Of course not. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun, which you haven't really been able to say about a Star Wars film since 1983.

8. Is it as good as the original trilogy? Let's put it this way – I can safely say this is the fourth-best film in the series. Possibly even the third-best, depending on how you feel about Return Of The Jedi.

9. Either way, it’s safe to say the series is now back on track as the fun, entertaining popcorn space-fantasy franchise it was intended to be (whether George Lucas cares to admit that or not).

BONUS TRACK: For those of you who care, while Disney disavowed the Expanded Universe stories, that didn’t stop the screenwriters from borrowing certain ideas from it. io9 has a list here if you’d like to know more, though it is of course chock full of spoilers.

SEE ALSO: This op/ed from Ars Technica on why scrapping most of the Expanded Universe was probably a good idea.

AND FINALLY: If you want to know what George Lucas thinks about SW:TFA, you can find out here.

The Force abides,

This is dF


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This will be the last of the movie reviews for 2015 – except for that one.

You know the one I mean. That one warrants a separate post, so unless we manage to squeeze in that Peanuts movie at the last minute, this is probably it for 2015.

Bridge Of Spies

Steven Spielberg’s mainly-true Cold War tale about how insurance lawyer James Donovan defended accused Russian spy Rudolf Abel and eventually negotiated a deal with the Russians and the East Germans to trade Abel for Gary Powers and college student Frederic Pryor.

Much has been made about the fact that the Coen Brothers have a writing credit, though I can’t say how much it adds to the original screenplay. In any case, while it’s not a typical Coens script, it’s pretty well written. And overall it’s an interesting slice of Cold War history that Spielberg uses to mirror the modern paranoia and questions over due process that America is grappling with today in regards to the War On Terror.

For the most part it works, even if Spielberg overplays his hand from time to time and relies on some occasional cheese (particularly the scene where Powers’ U2 plane is shot down). Some people will write it off as Oscar Bait just because Tom Hanks is in it, but there’s more to it than that.

SPECTRE

Daniel Craig returns for his last outing as James Bond, and with Skyfall completing the reboot that puts Bond, M, Q and Moneypenny in their respective positions on the board, this film runs with that set-up to introduce the classic eponymous Bond foe.

And it does so reasonably well. The problem is that Casino Royale and Skyfall set the bar pretty high, and SPECTRE doesn’t quite clear it. Part of the problem is that sometimes the script lapses into the kinds of OTT action scenes the reboot was supposed to be at least be smarter about. A couple of action sequences here are noticeably and pointlessly dumb. Also, it’s starting to feel like “Bond defies orders and goes rogue” is becoming a standard plot device for the reboot films.

On the plus side, Craig is still good, as is Christoph Waltz as This Year’s Villain. It’s also good that the writers are continuing with the notion that M and Moneypenney are more than just desk jockeys. And the “evil plot” really taps into modern paranoia about the pitfalls of mass surveillance, even if some of the technology bits aren’t that well thought out. Overall, it’s an above-average Bond film, but here’s hoping future Bond films spend more time messing with the formula rather than settling into one.

Shaken not stirred,,

This is dF
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One good thing about flying 15 hours on an airplane with a decent VOD entertainment system is that you do get caught up on yr movie watching. Here’s what I managed to watch.

Jurassic World

Did anyone need a new Jurassic Park movie besides Universal Studios? Probably not, and it’s just as well I waited for the airplane release. It’s silly dinosaur fun with a new raptor gimmick (i.e. Raptor Strike Force) and very dumb science. Probably the most amazing thing about it is that it requires you to believe that either the first three films never happened or that everyone involved at InGen learned absolutely nothing from the events in those films.

Terminator: Genisys

Did anyone need a new Terminator movie besides Paramount and Arnold Schwarzenegger? Probably not, and this film basically proves that. The idea of using the time-travel angle to create alternate realities of the first two films is great in theory, but the execution is pretty bad once you realize the writers were less interested in coming up with believable consequences of time travel and more in just using it as an excuse for a do-over of the original film. The result is basically a retread of the same ideas that tries to be different mostly by rearranging the pieces.

Ant-Man

It seems strange but true that some of the best Marvel films feature the least-known characters: first Guardians Of The Galaxy and now Ant-Man, where thief Scott Lang falls in with Dr Hugh Pym who has a formula and a special suit that can shrink people to ant-size but with proportionately increased strength and speed. On the downside, it’s 100% predictable, and the family angles are cliché. But Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas are great, and it has the right tone for a superhero film.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

As franchise films go, MI has more going for it than most, if only because you can do more story-wise with the ludicrous-action spy genre than, say, Jurassic Park or Terminator. MI has generally lived up to its premise, and it’s nice that this one openly acknowledges the fact that the IMF basically gets things done on improv and dumb luck. This installment pits Ethan Hunt against The Syndicate, a rogue group of disavowed agents causing mayhem. My biggest disappointment with it is that Tom Cruise is still the big star – I’d hoped the last film would be an excuse to let Jeremy Renner take the lead for awhile. That said, Cruise is still capable of pulling off an MI film, though I did find it amusing that every scene either features Ethan Hunt or other characters talking about Ethan Hunt.

Slow West

Not a franchise blockbuster! This an indie film from Scottish writer/director John Maclean about naïve lovelorn Scottish teenager Jay Cavendish, who roams the American Wild West in search of his girlfriend Rose, who emigrated to America with her father. Jay meets Silas, a bounty hunter who knows that Rose and her dad have a $2,000 bounty on their heads. The title is apt – this is a slow-burn tribute to Westerns (as interpreted by Scotland and New Zealand) that’s often too pretentious for its own good. Still, it has its moments, and Michael Fassbender is good as Silas.

Slow ride,

This is dF


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Not much time for the cinemas these days, but here’s a couple of amateur reviews to meet my blogging obligations.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

50+ years after its TV debut, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. finally gets the Big Hollywood Remake treatment, with Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo and Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin, with director Guy Ritchie aiming to do with Solo and Kuryakin what he did with Holmes and Watson – i.e. an action-packed period-piece buddy film with back-and-forth narrative jumps.

Wisely, Ritchie keeps the story set in the early Cold War 60s – trying to do a story in which a CIA and KGB agent are forced to work together wouldn’t really work in a 2015 setting. On the downside, it’s mostly an origin tale of how the U.N.C.L.E. team was assembled, built around a decent but average plot involving wealthy Nazi sympathizers trying to build their own nuclear weapon. It’s debatable whether we really need a whole film to explain the background, although maybe with the show being 50 years old, exposition helps.

Anyway, the real attraction here isn’t the story so much as the way Ritchie tells it, and the interaction between Solo and Kuryakin. Cavill is all suave and unflappable, while Hammer plays Kuryakin with barely controlled intensity. It’s good that they’re having fun with it, but I did find myself wishing they’d had as much fun as Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law had in the Sherlock Holmes films. This is good as light entertainment, but it just feels like more could have been done here.

Minions

Well, why not? Take what was really the best funny bits in the Despicable Me films (the Minion scenes) and give them their own film, which explains their origins and their purpose – to find an evil master to serve. Only they’re not very good at it.

After the Minion race spends several centuries in self-exile in Antarctica, three Minions strike out on a quest to find a new master, which leads them to a villain convention in Orlando circa 1968, where they land a gig with super-villain Scarlet Overkill to steal the crown of Queen Elizabeth II so she can take over England.

All of which is pretty much an excuse to stretch all those Minion skits to 90 minutes, set to a lot of classic rock tunes to amuse the parents while the kids laugh at Minion slapstick. Which isn't to say only kids will find it funny – there’s a lot of fun to be had. Overall it’s a film that knows exactly what it is – zany goofball entertainment with epic merchandising – and doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

God save the Queen,

This is dF

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I haven’t managed to get to the cinemas much this year for a variety of reasons. But I did make it at least twice since the last time I posted something in this category.

Inside Out

Odds are you’ll be sick of hearing about this film before the year is out, but for once the hype is justified – at least to me.

By now you know the premise – five anthropomorphic emotions run the control room inside the head of 11-year-old Riley, with Joy the primary leader. When Riley’s family moves to San Francisco, Sadness starts taking over. After Joy and Sadness – along with Riley’s core memories – are accidentally dumped into her long-term memory, they must find their way back to HQ through Riley’s mind before she experiences an emotional breakdown and loses her personality.

This is easily the most inventive and creative film Pixar has done in years, and the most layered and complex film they’ve done it their entire history. Directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen do a great job of distilling complex psychological concepts and distilling them into a simplified but clever story and a weird but recognizable metaphoric landscape. And sure, it’s a little heavy on the emo – the main characters are emotions, after all – but it’s never really forced or overdone, and it works thanks to a great voiceover cast that really sells the characters.

After six years of slipping into franchise retreads and pedestrian princess films (i.e. Brave – good film, but didn’t raise the bar the way I’ve come to expect Pixar films to do), it’s good to see Pixar back on form and proving it's possible to make smart, creative films and still be successful.

What We Do In The Shadows

Mockumentary from Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (based on a short film they did in 2006) that’s basically The Real World with vampires, only it’s a comedy.

Rooted in the premise that a New Zealand film crew was granted access to the super-secret Unholy Masquerade, the film focuses on four vampire roommates who are somewhat out of touch with the modern world. That changes after they turn would-be victim Nick into a vampire, after which Nick gets them up to speed on things like The Internet while they teach him (not entirely successfully) about being a vampire. There are arguments over dishes, attempts to get invited into nightclubs, batfights and encounters with responsible werewolves.

I confess I’m not a big fan of mockumentaries, if only because it’s an overdone format. But this is rather well done. The improvised humor doesn’t always work for me, but there are a lot of genuinely funny scenes. And they have a lot of fun with the standard vampire tropes (lack of reflection, turning into bats, requiring to be invited into a building, etc) without really mocking the genre as a whole. In fact, it’s one of the better vampire films to come out in awhile.

FUN FACT: Here in HK, they actually went to the trouble of hiring local voiceover actors to do a dubbed Cantonese version. 

Behold.



This is unusual – they typically only do that for animated films. Evidently they thought this would be a big enough film in HK that they thought it was worth the expense of dubbing. 

Bite me,

This is dF

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ITEM: YouTube user Marcelo Zuniga has made some videos detailing every change ever made to the first three Star Wars films, complete with side-by-side comparisons.

Many of them I already knew about via the 1997 "special editions", but I didn’t know they’d been making extra alterations in subsequent home video releases. Many of them are fairly subtle, others not so much.

Anyway, as part of the original Star Wars generation, I think these videos offer definitive proof (to me) that the originals really didn't need "fixing". In my opinion the Biggs scene is the only deleted scene that was worth adding in.

It occurs to me too that one of the biggest problems here is that Lucasfilm is subtely (if not intentionally) altering film history.

The original SW trilogy was heralded in large part because the FX were groundbreaking and visually stunning for the time period. That matters because when you watch any old film, yr basically seeing films that were made with the tools available at the time, some of which may have been invented specifically for that film. That in itself is a tribute to the ingenuity of the filmmakers, and even if it looks a little clunky by 2015 standards, you can still appreciate what they managed to accomplish.

Star Wars has a well-earned rep as a game-changer in FX, but when you stick in scenes using technology that didn’t exist at the time, it’s like cheating. People seeing Star Wars for the first time may look at the latest version and think, “Wow, they had CGI back in the 70s!”

Well, maybe not, if only because Lucasfilm has been fairly transparent about its enhancements, so it’s not they're trying to trick anyone into thinking they were that far ahead of the CGI game. And maybe it only matters to people like me who have a fascination with film FX tricks and the art of making fake look real, and how they used to do it in the Old Days compared to now.

And considering a lot of the original FX are still intact, I guess you could say the upgraded films serve as a kind of mostly seamless comparison of old-school and new-school FX that demonstrate how sophisticated Lucasfilm and ILM were when they first started.

Still, now that Disney owns Lucasfilm, I’m hoping one day they’ll release the original versions for us Old And Cranky People who will always swear that Han shot first. That doesn’t seem likely, internet rumors notwithstanding. And Lucas has adamant that the “special editions” are the definitive versions as far as he’s concerned, and the originals are “half-completed” films.

If it ain’t broke,

This is dF


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Rowdy Roddy Piper is gone.

Which may not mean much to non-wrestling fans, except the ones who liked They Live.



For me, of course, Piper was part of the Toontown that was the WWF’s heyday in the late-80s. And he was always one of the standouts, whether in the ring or on the mike.

Also, while he wasn’t the first WWF superstar to break into films, he was one of the few who made at least one really good one (see above). The rest of them were mainly straight-to-video B-movies, but I’ll take that over Hulk Hogan’s kids films any day.

Piper brought Hell to Frogtown.



He went to the police academy with Jesse Ventura.



He inspired a punk rock song.



It’s hard not to respect that.

I think Jade Bos sums it up well:

Rowdy Roddy Piper was just an average dude full of disdain and hatred, for well, pretty much everything. And we loved him for it. Because deep inside we fucking hated everything too. It was the eighties. Sleek flamboyant artifice, Ronald Reagan, flawless over produced synth pop, and cocaine ruled the day. And much like the cocaine. It looked like so much fun, but in the end you’re miserable, broke, and alone with an empty mirror.

I know this probably doesn’t make much sense, but my hope is you feel like it does. Because that’s what Rowdy Roddy Piper was to me. In the middle of the fakest thing around, in the phoniest decade. In the grandly absurd Kabuki opera known as Professional Wrestling, he was somehow undeniable real.

Amen.

Sooner or later everybody pays the Piper,

This is dF
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Looking back on this list, it seems that a lot of the songs I liked as a kid (circa early-mid 70s) were ballads – not as in soppy love songs with an electric guitar solo, but as in songs that told stories.

But only one of them was made into a film.




Well, sort of. The film’s story has almost nothing to do with the song, which is of course about a jealous husband who becomes a victim of crooked Southern justice.

Which apparently is why Cher turned it down (or rather, Sonny Bono turned it down for her over concerns it might annoy her Southern fan base). In fact, according to legend, none of the singers it was shopped to had much interest, nor did the music label people who didn’t know how to pigeonhole it into a format. Even the guy who wrote it – Bobby Russell (a.k.a. Mr Vicki Lawrence at the time) – didn’t think it was all that great a song anyway. So Vicki went and recorded the damn thing herself.

Back story!

Anyway, listening to it now, I think it holds up pretty well. But then I like a good story about crooked Southern justice.

FUN FACT: Because Top 40 DJs in the 70s rarely bothered to tell you who performed the songs you just heard, it wasn’t until I got a copy of the 45 that I realized the singer was the same woman who played Mama on the Carol Burnett Show.

Supper's waiting at home and I gotta get to it,

This is dF


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I haven’t been getting to the cinemas as much as I would like these days. But I have managed to see a couple of things.

Mad Max: Fury Road

An argument could be made that we really didn’t need another Mad Max film – not least since any “reboot” would have to live up to at least the first two films, if not Beyond Thunderdome. But if yr going to revive the series, this is the way to do it.

George Miller made two very wise decisions with Fury Road: (1) real car stunts that rely as little on CGI as possible (though perhaps not little enough at times) and (2) going with an all-new story instead of rehashing Max’s origins, although the plot follows a framework similar (but not identical) to Mad Max 2.

Still, it’s the details that matter, and on that score, the film delivers just about everything you’d want in a new Mad Max film: insane car battles, insane post-apocalyptic tribes, and insane visual design, with a decent story engine driving it along. My only real complaint is the CGI thrown in for 3D purposes. But that’s a small quibble for a film where everything is deliberately over the top. Where else can you see an assault force led by a heavy-metal guitarist with a flamethrowing guitar?

Meanwhile, Tom Hardy is a worthy successor as Max, but Charlize Theron steals the show as Imperator Furiosa. Which has apparently upset the Men’s Rights groups who are annoyed at all the "feminism" George Miller poured all over their movie. If that’s not a recommendation to go see it, I’d like to know what is.

Ex Machina

Almost the polar opposite of MM:FR in terms of OTT energy, Ex Machina is a slow-paced but absorbing AI-thriller written and directed by Alex Garland. The story involves Caleb, a coder at a giant search engine company (not that one), who wins a company lottery to work with reclusive legendary founder Nathan Bateman on a super-secret project that turns out to be Ava, a female robot with artificial intelligence. Nathan wants Caleb to apply the Turing Test to Ava whilst already knowing she’s not human. But as the tests go on, Caleb suspects that both Nathan and Ava have their own agendas.

Oscar Isaacs is great as Nathan, equal parts brooding psychopath and charismatic-to-the-point-of-intimidating genius, and Alicia Vikander makes for a smart and sympathetic Ava. Domhnall Gleeson is a little lackluster in comparison as Caleb, but fulfils his role as the average guy who finds himself in over his head.

Like other films Garland has written, the third act falls a little short on logic, and some bits are predictable. On the other hand, he does avoid some of the more obvious tropes for this kind of film, and does a good job using the storyline to explore the ethical issues involved with developing AI (especially the way in which Nathan went about it), the differences between human intelligence and AI, and the possible consequences. Even the inevitable sexbot trope serves more to raise the ethical issues involved instead of “hey guys, sexbots!” Overall, if yr expecting a straight techno action thriller, you’ll be disappointed. But if you like yr SF a little more thoughtful, this should be right up yr street.

Smarter than the average robot,

This is dF


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They say celebrity deaths happen in threes. In the last 24 hours we lost Sir Christopher Lee, Ornette Coleman and Dusty Rhodes.

It doesn't get much more diverse than that.

I confess I don’t have much to say about Coleman, if only because I wasn’t really aware he was still alive. I have two of his landmark albums from 1959 (The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Tomorrow Is The Question!), and I confess I only got into him because Henry Rollins name-dropped him and John Zorn did a covers album of Coleman compositions. But there’s no doubt he was an original.

The same could possibly be said of Dusty Rhodes, who was a TV staple for me growing up in Tennessee watching professional wrestling on weekends. He was always a standout and could always work a crowd whether he was a heel or a babyface. I had mixed feelings about his American Dream gimmick in the WWF with the polka dot outfits and all that. On the other hand, Rhodes made the most of it. Who else could get away with going on national television in a butcher shop and saying, “You can beat my prices, but you sure can’t beat my meat.”

As for Sir Christopher Lee, well, this probably sums it up better than anything I could write.

Rest in Peace, Christopher Lee

You can also add to that list, “Was on the cover of a Wings album”.



Respect.

And you will know us by the trail of dead,

This is dF
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ITEM: Marvel is killing the popcorn movie. Furthermore, it doesn’t care. And Avengers: Age of Ultron is proof.

So says this op/ed piece in Wired, which is not a diatribe against popcorn films, but against the approach that Marvel has taken to them, and the effect it’s having on the overall popcorn-film genre.

I don’t agree that A:AoU will have a knock-on effect on all popcorn films – fans love it, critics mainly liked it, and the box office take is healthy, so Disney/Marvel and other studios have all the incentive they need to do more things like it.

That said, I do think the article brilliantly sums up the way I feel about the whole Marvel Cinematic/TV Universe. Namely: Marvel’s stipulation that each part must serve the whole. Apparently the A:AoU script had to conform to Marvel’s guidelines to the point that a number of scenes served no purpose except as set-ups or promos for other Marvel franchises.

From the article:

•So, once Marvel’s formula has deprived the movie of (a) time for the characters, (b) the potential for the story to unfold in a surprising way, and (c) meaningful consequences, we then get each character’s maximum 10 minutes of focus (which is now more like five or six) cut down even further, with ads for other Marvel products. In Age of Ultron, we lose several minutes of valuable time that could be spent developing our characters to visit Wakanda and establish Andy Serkis as a villain, not because he’s important to the plot—he’ll totally disappear after this one scene—but because there’s going to be a Black Panther movie. Thor has to be taken out of the action for a while so that his scientist friend can help him hallucinate the premise of Infinity War. Captain America gets a flashback that doesn’t relate to the plot, but does remind you that he used to date Peggy Carter, who you can catch every week on ABC’s own Agent Carter! Etcetera.

Now, I get that the above is more of a problem for an ensemble franchise like The Avengers than it would be for a standalone MCU franchise. And I also realize that interconnectedness is a key feature of the Marvel comics.

The thing is, that's easier to do with comic books that have been around 50+ years than it is with films and television. Universes don't mean much if the characters are one-dimensional and the stories are nothing but a series of epic fight scenes.

And even then, I have to say one of the reasons I stopped reading Marvel comics in the 90s was that same emphasis on interconnectivity in the Marvel Comics Universe. The result was too many damn crossovers. It got to the point that you had to read ten or eleven titles to be able to follow what was going on. Which of course was fine with Marvel because $$$$$.

Apparently Marvel wants to do the same basic thing with the films and TV shows and spinoffs of both. IMO, eventually it's going to backfire. Some MCU fans I know are already complaining that some of the TV shows have writing that's not Whedon-levels of clever. God knows how they're going to feel when they realize that Robert Downey Jr can't play Tony Stark indefinitely, which is going to ruin the continuity.

And now Warner Bros/DC are looking to emulate the same Cinematic Universe formula (since DC Comics, of course, does the universe/crossover thing as well), which seems to be a problem for a lot of fans because the existing DC film aesthetic has already been established by Chris Nolan’s Batman films and Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel. Which is apparently a bad thing because those movies sucked.

Which is news to me. Not Man Of Steel, of course (which I haven't seen, but I know it wasn’t that well received by Superman fans), but the Nolan Batman films. I seem to remember comics fans generally liking them (especially The Dark Knight), apart from some minor quibbles and the inability of The Dark Knight Rises to live up to TDK. Then the MCU happened, and now suddenly it seems all the fan sites are talking about how the Nolan films were actually awful the whole time because they’re not as fun as the MCU films and are about stoopid things like intelligence and emotion.

I might be imagining it. Or my memory is faulty. Maybe it’s just that Nolan’s Batman was better by comparison to every superhero film before it, but now it suffers in comparison to Iron Man and the Avengers cos they're superhero films done “properly”. That’s arguably true of Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films – I remember fans seemed generally impressed with the first two (not so much the third one, admittedly), but none of them have really aged well. Which I suppose is one reason why they rebooted it.

Anyway, I’d just as soon both Disney/Marvel and WB/DC drop the whole Cinematic Universe concept – especially if it’s only going to serve as a cross-promotion tool for other properties.

FULL DISCLOSURE #1: I haven’t seen A:AoU. Or any of the Marvel TV shows.

FULL DISCLOSURE #2: I like Zack Snyder as a director. And I don’t care who knows that.

Avengers disassemble,

This is dF

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