Tag Archives: Fantasy

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Di Renjie: Shen du long wang)

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame was visually entertaining and intriguing enough that this follow-up prequel by the same writers and director caught my attention. Director and co-writer Hark Tsui has a boundless imagination and nearly overwhelms you with creative scenery and fights. Actually, if you are stuck with subtitles, it can be exhausting as the dialogue can be fast and furious, even during some of the action sequences.

But the story is full of action and humor and crazy, wild plot choices. Though there is a huge cast of characters, the film is really propped up by three actors: Mark Chao, Shaofeng Feng (Monkey King 2), and Angelababy (Independence Day: Resurgence). The fights are replete with wire work, which isn’t my favorite for martial arts, but this is a fantasy and that is part and parcel of the genre. The fights are still entertaining and inventive…even if they defy all known physics. 

I’m not sure why Tsui decided to loop back on Dee’s timeline to slip in this prequel even while he was planning the next main timeline movie, but perhaps that will become clear when Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings releases. In the meantime, you have this confection to chew on, if you are into this kind of thing.

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

It is going to kill me to write this review. Of all the movies this summer, this is the one I was really waiting for; the first big Luc Besson (Léon: The Professional) film in years. I still think you should go see it, but I’ll get to why later. First the painful part.

The source material for Valerian predates and influenced a good part of the ‘classic’ scifi movie cannon, but it is coming to market long after they got to establish themselves. So what we see appears to be part Fifth Element and part Avatar, with healthy doses of Star Wars and Babylon 5 thrown in for good measure. It is visually stunning, no question. It also has some of the best depictions of AR done yet on film. But for all its inventiveness it feels a bit like a pastiche of what you already know even if the comic influenced them first. But that isn’t where the move is weakest.

The main weakness isn’t even in the plot. The plot is relatively obvious by design. There is no pretense about who is good and who is evil in this tale. Clive Owen (Words and Pictures) is about as subtle as a nuke in his role. And are you really unclear that the species experiencing genocide is probably on the side of right? The story, at its bones, is interesting and has captivated audiences for years in comic form as a classic good and evil struggle. Besson could have softened that a bit, grayed out Owen’s role, in particular, to help raise the emotion and tension of the decisions, but it could have worked either way.

No, the weakness of the film is squarely on the acting of the two main characters.

Because there are few character surprises, the strength of the film has to rely on the chemistry between Dean DeHaan’s (Life After Beth) and Cara Delevingne‘s (Suicide Squad) characters. Much like the Bruce Willis/Mila Jovovich interchanges in Fifth Element, it isn’t so much what is happening around the main characters as much as what is happening between them. And, sadly, there is bloody nothing happening in that space for DeHaan and Delevingne. Zip. A gallon jug of liquid nitrogen couldn’t cool their romance any more than it already is. They don’t even seem to react at the carnage they leave in their path during their normal day-to-day assignments. It may be, in part, the directing, but, frankly, neither of these actors has impressed me much in their previous roles. So let’s say it is as much a casting as an acting problem, which still is at Besson’s feet.

All that said, you do have to see this film for a couple reasons. First, it is a big screen experience, no question. The level of detail and artistry on the screen has rarely, if ever, been matched. Second, it is one of the few original ideas out there in the tentpole space. Everything we’re being fed this year is spin-off, sequel, prequel, or remake. Besson is giving us something new. That is a gift in these days of recycling properties and studios too scared to try something new. They need a reason to gamble and that means showing them “new” can sell. Go in knowing you’re there for a visual ride and you’re fine.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015)

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Really, yet another Midsummer Night’s Dream?” Or, perhaps, “Shakespeare? Honestly, why do I need to see this?” The answer to both is: Julie Taymor (The Tempest).

Taymor is one of the most visionary stage directors of our time. She employs simple techniques to create magnificent effects. Think the puppets in The Lion King, which have become her trademark. Midsummer certainly leverages that aspect of her talent, but also her ability to distill a play to its essence and manifest it. The opening moments of this filmed performance will grab you and make you wish you’d been in the audience. She takes several minutes before the first piece of uttered dialogue to visually create the world and your expectations, to invite you into a magical realm, to escape for a while into the silliness of this comedy.

There are a number of solid performances, but chief among them in Kathryn Hunter (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). Her Puck is brilliant and carries the show well through acting, voice, and movement. As Oberon, David Harewood (The Night Manager) brings both a power and heart to the self-important ruler, though it is still rather hobbled by the plot he must walk.

The Mechanicals, led by Max Casella’s (Jackie) Bottom, are suitably absurd, and each has their moment. But it is Zachary Infante (Carrie Pilby) as Flute that really shines in one of the play’s most important moments near the end of the film.

The approach to filming the play is done rather well, capturing both an audience feel and “in the action” keeping it from feeling too static. There are a few moments that I’d rather have seen from long shots, to really appreciate the staging, but generally, the cameras floated among the characters like the fairies in the play.

So here’s the truth: The play isn’t perfect. Frankly no Shakespeare is. Sensibilities have moved on and the plays tend to be a bit longer for their purpose than modern times tends to care for and, clearly, a little too forgiving of cultural mores that are well out of date. In the case of Midsummer, the opening scene and the overlong wrap-up probably will grate a little. You are also forgiven for wondering why the heck we have to sit through the mechanical’s presentation while the Duke and co. heckle them. The Mechanical’s play is funny and, really, it is used to get to the single moment with Flute, whose declaration of love is one of the most heart-felt in the entire play, which is full of overblown histrionics by design. That moment brings it all back to earth. More generally, in today’s terms, Shakespeare had written himself into a corner and needed to wrap up the threads and entertain the cheap seats. However, to be a little more fair, the original intent of the play was about (and for) the wedding.

If you’ve never seen Midsummer, this is a great one to start with. If you have, it may well become your favorite interpretation on a broad scale. There have certainly been better and more memorable individual performances of characters in this play, but as an overall delivery, this version is truly extraordinary and wonderful to watch.

A Midsummer Night

Spider-Man: Homecoming

So here we are: the third bite at the apple for Sony. Say farewell to the Rami trilogy and the misfired Amazing Spider Man duo. I have to admit, when I heard this was all in the works, my enthusiasm was low. The trajectory of the character has been driven at Sony more by the drive to hang onto the rights than to make good films. But let’s put that aside for the moment. The fact is this reboot is really quite good and finally has a young kid playing Peter Parker at the right age for a change.

From the casting of Tom Holland (The Secret World of Arrietty) to starting off with The Ramones for the soundtrack to kick it all off, this co-release with Marvel really hit all the right marks. Holland is young enough to really feel like a gangling 15  year old who, limbs at all angles, fearlessly swings around NYC and environs trying to do good. He isn’t an antihero like Deadpool, but he isn’t the typical superhero either.

And this is where Marvel and the six credited writers (yes, six) really deserve some applause. They know that we’re fatigued with these films. They know that we find it all just a bit silly. They play into that idea, allowing Peter Parker to be both superhero and little hero. He bumbles around and is more an Everyman than ever before. It really helps sell the movie as both a fun ride and as something relatable. But they also weave him into the Avengers universe with clips from Captain America: Civil War so that we have context. It works wonderfully. But, most importantly, it isn’t entirely predictable. It keeps throwing in curve balls and surprises, and of course, humor. I have no idea who to really credit with all that given the number of people involved, but that it all works together with that many cooks is a feat unto itself.

Along with Holland are some great, supporting roles. Michael Keaton’s (Robocop) role is particularly nuanced. He starts in the prologue with solid motivation, and then, like many things, it morphs into something else. And the prologue is worth mentioning as it winds back the clock to just after the first Avengers movie, in a world shattered and newly aware of aliens and superheros. Spider-Man can play-out in parallel to the movies that followed, though the Civil War reference gives them a bit of a time paradox problem, but just blink through it and it won’t bother you too much.

There are other main adult roles. Marisa Tomei (Love the Coopers) is sadly underused in this movie, though she definitely has some important moments, and is there in Peter’s mind at all times. Jon Favreau (Chef) however, gets a bit more screen time and his own little subplot through the movie. And Robert Downey Jr. (Avengers: Age of Ultron) gets some moments as well. The biggest surprise in the adult cast for me was the very nice turn by Donald Glover (The Martian). I’ve like the actor for a while, but he delivered this part, small as it was, with great skill. There are other surprises as well, but I won’t expose them here.

The film really focuses, rightly so, on the younger cast. Jacob Batalon quietly carries a lot more of the story than you expect. Laura Harrier and Zendaya add some nice confusion and, let’s say goals for Peter Parker to focus on. Only Tony Revolori (Dope), really feels forced in this group. Here I mainly blame director Jon Watts (Cop Car) for not holding him in check.

This is a rocket-fueled adventure, but very much from an adolescent’s eyes, even if there is plenty for adults to both relate to and enjoy. It is a great addition to the Marvel Universe, but I am dubious that Sony will recognize what they have and keep their mitts off of it. We’ll see if they can sustain the franchise this time. They have made it clear it is only leaving their hands when they’ve turned to dust, so that means a movie every three years, regardless of quality or value. If I sound concerned, suffice to say that whispers from the industry already suggest that the future is heading off the rails, which would be a damned shame. They really have something here, and a star that can sustain them for a good long while before he’s too old to play the part. Here’s hoping they see that and protect it.

Meantime, go and give your summer a kick to get it rolling again after several weeks of disappointing releases.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

You’ve probably already seen this (I hadn’t) and nothing I’m going to say here will change your mind.

So, if you loved this film, power to you and move along, you’ll probably think I’m being sour and unromantic, but I’m not. I love this story, and am particularly fond of the Grimm’s version and the Cocteau film, which leans heavily on that source. I even like the TV version (but, hey, that gave us Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton, not to mention George RR Martin). But this Disney version is simplified and just not as engaging.

Like all fairy tales, there is a base truth Beauty wishes to convey, to teach. There are many ways to get there if you want to do variations of the story, but to really get there, in all cases, you have to truly care for the characters and their situations. You need to feel their fear and see their changes. Disney’s offering is all distraction and almost no emotion. That doesn’t make it un-entertaining, it just makes it empty entertainment, however pretty. And, to be fair,  the production design (real and digital) is truly a thing of beauty and imagination. Also, the nods to Sound of Music and Esther Williams, among others, are a riot.

But the story itself is rushed and almost utterly without tension or sense of time. It all seems to happen over the course of, at most, five days. I certainly believe in immediate connections between people, but they don’t usually involve kidnap, threats, and imprisonment. That takes time to overcome. In this case, everyone walked in knowing what would happen and didn’t even try to pretend it wouldn’t…the closest feint was the faked, depressing ending which the Enchantress (whom we’ve been spotting hanging out all along) deals with silently and completely without comment.

Does it still work? In its way, yes, but not because it is on the screen, but because it is in your mind. That is not only a cheat, but ultimately unsatisfying. It didn’t really do anything new for us. Frankly, there was too much other stuff to allow there to be characters and acting so that we actually cared about Belle, the Beast, her father, etc., and not just about the “story.”

There were other annoyances as well. The forced amount of diversity in the cast, seemingly without purpose, meaning, or basis. The continuity gaffs with the horse who magically appears at either end of the journey as needed, with or without tack. Peasants that suddenly have fancy dress. And then there was the great “controversy,” which was over so fast I actually almost missed it. Man people are screwed up if that was what flipped them out.

Ultimately, this is an OK piece of distraction, but not a great or classic film; it is simply big and flashy. Sure, it’s worth a single watch, but there isn’t a single performance worthy of mention, nor specific results calling out.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Before I Fall

I don’t think I speak out of turn by saying this is a Groundhog Day for teenagers, in fact I may even be helping your enjoyment. If I hadn’t know that, I think the first 10-15 minutes would have sent me running as the young leads are far too good at their clique-ish hatefulness to make me want to stay. It isn’t a trait I find attractive or even compelling. However, knowing it was the base from which change was going to come, I understood the extreme start of the tale and just strapped in for the ride.

The success of the movie is down to Zoey Deutch (Why Him?). While there is nothing particularly surprising in this tale of growing up and coming to terms, but it is effective in its message. But leaping past that, the journey that Deutch’s character takes is very gripping. She is allowed to find the frustration, anger, and even humor of it all so that she can also finally find the solution (which is painfully obvious from the outside looking in).

Anchoring the story with Deutch are alumns from Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Logan Miller and Halston Sage who both put in solid performances. Miller, in particular, is a nice and unexpected choice for his role. Jennifer Beals (Taken) and Nicholas Lea (Continuum) as Deutch’s parents add a small balance to the teenage-run-amok feel of the rest of the story, which helps keep it the least bit credible.

Oddly, though Deutch drives the tale, she is also part of the problems the film runs into. Deutch is just a couple years too old to believably play High School. In fact, though the main cast is all within a couple years of their character ages, those couple years really do make a difference visually, especially for Deutch. It isn’t a constant problem, but every once in a while it pulled me out of the story, which became a distracting issue.

Issues aside, this movie, at the right time, could be very powerful for an audience. It is a great reminder to live life, really live it. It isn’t a new message and this doesn’t dress it up in a new way, but it does it competently and with enough flair and earnestness to make it work. It is certainly aimed at young women, which is also why it could make a solid date movie for a lot of folks as well. Having seen this, I may need to go read Oliver’s book now as well given how much must have been internal monologues.

Before I Fall

Doctor Who (Series 10)

I have to say, despite how much I liked Sherlock, I’m glad to see Moffat quit of it so he could concentrate on Who and his final season of show-running here. While series 9 acquitted itself reasonably, and Doctor Mysterio was amusing, series 8 has still left a bad taste in my brain. Mind you, he is still not a great show-runner, but 8 suffered so badly from his distraction that having him focused was a better option.

Generally, there were a lot of echos from the first season of the reboot through the first half or more of this series. In some cases, clear steals and references, which was an interesting choice. There was also a clear purpose building through the season… though some of it was spread out rather frustratingly and sparingly. Given that The Doctor and Nardole are supposed to have been in their current positions for decades at the top of the season (which has some odd implications) the slow burn of the bigger arc is understandable.

The addition of our latest companion, Bill, was a nice choice on a lot of levels. She has attitude and smarts and, most interestingly, a life outside the Doctor in a way we’ve not seen before. But it isn’t a series that feels very complete, by the end. Despite some nice structures and some fabulous moments, as a whole it is middling. Peter Capaldi (World War Z) seriously attempts to elevate it all with his talents, which are considerable. But he was handed some very weak scripts, so he could only do so much. He and the, basically unknown, Pearl Mackie make a nice duet, with the returning and redoubtable Matt Lucas (Alice Through the Looking Glass) at their side. But there is an unfocused energy between them all that never quite finds its target.

Overall, it is an enjoyable season, but not brilliant. It tries very hard to be so, but falls short do to its ultimate trajectory. What follows are my reactions as the series ran, rather than as retrospective. As noted, they are spoiler rich, so watch the season first if you don’t want to know anything.

By the Episode (with spoilers)

The Pilot
A strong and interesting opening with a lot of potential. The introduction of relative newcomer, Pearl Mackie, to join Peter Capaldi is not a bad one. She comes in whole cloth, but with enough mystery to drive stories and interest. She is energetic and intelligent. Interestingly, it also unabashedly echos a lot of Rose, the first of the series reboot from 12 years ago.  Perhaps the title is a subtle wink to that as well? Pearl Mackie as Bill has a lot in common with Piper’s Rose; primarily class, sass, drive. The use of the alarm clock sequence, in particular, evokes that launch explicitly. Adding some diversity to the new story was good, even if it feels a little forced (not just female, but black and lesbian). I think the most fun of the episode is the nods all the way back to the show’s roots with Susan’s photo making a prominent appearance (and doesn’t that raise possibilities).

The tale of the episode itself is minimal and, typical of Moffat, thin on reason, but it is clearly all about setting up the series arc. I can live with that if they pay it off. I’m certainly interested to see where it goes and what the heck is in that vault and why. Eventually, it would be good to know why the Doctor singles her out as well (wild guess is that she is Susan’s descendant). For the moment it has been dismissed, but I suspect it has a more pivotal aspect to it. And, one hopes, we’ll understand the reason for the retention of Matt Lucas’s Nardole as having a continued role in the Doctor’s life as the series continues.

Smile
Continuing with allusions to the original Rose arc, we are now in the far-future of humanity after starting with near term. However, with this episode, something new becomes clear. Where previous seasons were episodic, this series appears to be a single, long, unending story. Each, at least for now, tale picks up from the last moment of the previous. The original series did this often, and even some of the reboot, but usually as bridges into the new tale, not like they’ve just moved to the next line in the script. It will be interesting to see if this continues and how it develops. It certainly will affect the pacing.

The story of Smile is intriguing and fun. But another aspect of this series is exposed in how the tale is told. We aren’t really meeting the affected parties and getting to know them much. We are just focused on Bill and The Doctor. Sure they are trying help others, but in the first two episodes, no secondary characters really become important or take shape. It makes the stories feel thin and the pace feel rushed. It may still even out, but it is an interesting change from the recent past (classic often did this). Those secondary characters fill out each new world for us. We also seem to be back to the TARDIS is lost in space in time again, but that may be a short feint.

Thin Ice
With this episode, the series seems to be hitting its stride. We get a nice balance of secondary characters to invest in, and a bit more of the overall mystery of the vault, or at least a tease about it. Bill also gets to fast-forward through a lot of the Doctor’s reality regarding his past and the spectre of death that does seem to dog him thanks to the situations he puts himself in.  This aspect has been a main plot driver for several of the companions, stretched over a season.

The episode is still oddly locked to the Rose season, however. Rather than Dickens (in person) and ghosts for its third episode, we end up with Oliver Twist and monsters. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this quite yet, but I’ll keep tracking it. But there are certainly resonances with previous seasons, down to the last moment with the knocking (think The Sound of Drums and the final Tenant episodes).

Knock Knock
Wow, really? The only thing of value in this episode, other than getting to see David Suchet (Poirot), was the final tag back at the vault. But to the episode first. It is a bit of a stretch to claim the parallels with Rose’s first season continue. While they are tracking to time period (we’re back in modern London with Bill bringing the Doctor into her life as Rose did in Aliens in London), the tale is somewhat different, though the personal fallout might not be. The episode itself was a weird cross between The LodgerThe God Complex, with a bit of Ghost Light (from the Classic series). Really didn’t much care for the whole haunted-house-but-really-aliens thing. Far too overdone at this point and they brought little new to it. More importantly, this episode didn’t much advance Bill and the Doctor’s relationship, though he dropped some hints on regeneration and such for her sake. Not an unwatchable episode, but not a memorable one either. It makes me wonder why they bothered with the enhanced sound release of it… though interesting and well done, I can’t say it made it particularly better.

Back to the vault…So, guessing at this point at Missy or Susan in the vault (both for reasons unknown). We shall see.

Oxygen
There is some solid stuff in this episode, though it really all about working toward a rather hard to earn a solid (if cringe-worthy) pun: working for the suits. It is another, literally, breathless episode with the terror and danger starting near the top and driving through… mostly so you won’t think too much about the facts. In the midst of all that, we get some good moments, particularly with the blue alien, but we don’t really get to know any of the secondary characters (again) and the faked death of Bill was cheap, even if it was obvious. The episode is really more about Nardole and The Doctor debating about and sparring over the vault and his “duty.” Honestly, I’d prefer little end tags to pull this along as the embedded bits are feeling rather forced and tacked on to stories pitched in a vacuum to the larger arc.

We are drifting more from the direct season one framework, which is good. The essential of this episode is for Bill to realize just how dangerous it all is (about on par with when Rose comes to the same discovery). Of course, if you realize that this season will have only 12 episodes rather than 13, we are in direct sync (as this would map to Dalek). Perhaps I’m stuck too much on this idea, but it was such a strong parallel at the top, I’m not quite ready to give it up. Sound continues to be a challenge for me… between the speed of the dialogue and the timbre of their voices, a lot of what the Doctor and Bill say is getting lost. BBC sound mixing has always been a challenge for my ears, it is just more so with this series.

Extremis
Well, first: Yippee, yes it was Missy! Not that I’m overly thrilled to have the Mastress back in the game (though I do like Missy quite a bit) but I do like being right even if I prefer to be happily surprised. As to this set-up/reset episode, I guess I can’t blame Moffat for doing exactly what Davies did on his last run: put everything at stake. As we’ve drifted off the Season 1 structure fairly completely now (unless Bill is somehow a Bad Wolf surrogate and this new enemy is stands in for the Daleks which hit series one at this point) we are seeing more the compression of Davies first 4 seasons forced into a single series.

I do have to say that I object to the ongoing blinding of the Doctor. Feels like Moffat is trying to do a Death of Superman thing, but suspect it is more about redeeming Missy unequivocally through some form of major sacrifice or merging of the last two time lords (though they aren’t any more, are they?). In any event, it is a good and creepy sort of premise. Nothing new, but interestingly laid out even if the baddy allowed the Doctor to monologue and send his email (sloppy writing).  And I have to admit the opening teaser was a beautiful misdirect, though ultimately a cheat (it was just a dream… sort of). We’re halfway through and now we have what appears to be the major arc. We’ll see what comes next.

Pyramid at the End of the World
We’re finally into something new in this series. The vampiric Monks (or that’s how I think of them at present) are intriguing and creepy. The rules around them aren’t well known yet and this episode is very much incomplete, leaving Nardole dying, infected, on the Tardis floor and, of course, Bill having made a deal with the devil. And to that latter bit…it didn’t feel very real to me. One of the disadvantages of the pace of this season is that we aren’t getting the relationship building time and appreciation between the Doctor and Bill. She’s been very much on the outside of things due to the vault, etc. So for her to sacrifice not just herself, but the entire world on the assumption that the Doctor will get them back out of it? Nope, not buying into it right now. At least the Doctor can see again (somehow) but guessing Missy is gong to be necessary to free the Earth. All that said, there are some clever bits to the story, we’ll just have to see how it plays out and for how long… are they really going to stretch this to the finale? Or is Moffat saving Missy for something bigger down the road?

The Lie of the Land
This episode gets a huge pass for many of its faults for the climactic “Welcome to Fake News Central,” nailing home unequivocally its political agenda and commentary. Absent that, it is the few, spare moments with Missy that sell this tale (and the small tipoff to the series finale in the teaser), because the rest is rushed and so hand-wavy as to frustrate the heck out of me, though I did like the setup of Bill’s mum being paid off.  There is no real logic or good explanation of how the Monk’s machine works or how it is defeated. There is no explanation as to why or what the Monk’s get from conquering a world. There is no reason given why, after investing so much time watching the “threads” of possibility that they would stop doing that and be so easily defeated. I was expecting this thread to carry forward a bit longer, so now I’ve no clue what comes next, other than more Missy and the possible redemption of the Mastress. Clearly Moffat is going big for his final series…  With only four to go, I’m looking forward to seeing if he can pay it all off.

The Empress of Mars
I never really felt the need to revisit The Tomb of the Cybermen, but this Mark Gatiss (Denial) take on the idea with the Ice Warriors has its moments. Few, admittedly, but a few. One of the nicest aspects is the guest spot of Anthony Calf (The Man Who Knew Infinity). With very little screen time, he provides you a complete character and story. Frustratingly, no one else really does, including the Doctor and Bill. The final moment, and the return of Alpha Centauri (including the original voice of Ysanne Churchman), was a nice nod to the Peladon sequence, though I do wonder if this didn’t break that bit of history in some way. However, really the whole excuse of this episode is to get Missy out of the vault… and perhaps next week we’ll know why the Tardis went nutty when Nardole went into it. This is the breath before what I expect to be the final run to the series and Moffat finale. We’ll see if they can redeem Missy and give the Doc a good send-off (cause, even if you didn’t know it, it has become obvious he’s about to regenerate — nicely tipped at the top of the previous episode).

Eaters of Light
Easily the best episode of the season so far. It had characters, scope, depth, humor, and sure the crow thing was wonderful, surprising, and silly all at once, but it worked. And, yes, the time sense of in the portal and out got a bit mucked, but loved the idea and resolution. They even got the full regeneration statement in this time; so even if you didn’t know what was coming, you know what is coming now. This is the Doctor I miss. Great stories and characters. And even though the Missy bit was a little squeezed in, it was a wonderful scene. With only two left to go, I’m really hoping this is indicative.

World Enough and Time
Seriously, did you need any more hint than the title? OK, then the opening moments should have sealed it. How those moments relate to the story that followed…I’ve no idea yet. In fact, I was somewhat annoyed that we started there and then looped back. Again. OK, annoyance aside, the setup of the tale with the time dilation is fabulous. Great idea and it starts off wonderfully. Wasn’t crazy about Missy’s dialogue, funny as it was, because she just didn’t feel ready, so why would the Doctor have sent her out there with his companions? But conceptually it was great.

John Simm’s (Doctor Who 6) as, initially, the Zathras-like character is a hoot. Also, pulling off the reveal like the old Classic Master (the ripping away of the disguise) was also a nice touch. I do have to admit I was waaaaay ahead on where it was generally going having recognized the face coverings from the first incarnation of the Cybermen. I feel like this rewrites the history of Mondas, but I honestly don’t recall what the genesis story of them was. I’m sure some geek will dig it out and call Moffat out on it if it exists.

Of course, the top-line story here now is the 2 Masters. Not sure how I feel about that yet. Probably necessary to get Missy redeemed. She literally has to battle herself. And the fate of Bill is very much in the air as we know of no way to reverse the process she’s been through (based on 50+ years of the show).

So, we know what’s coming now, without question, in the next episode. These new elements raise the stakes and muddy the waters all at once. We are no longer just worried about Bill, Nardole, and the Doctor…the focus is primarily about the Doctor and the Master.  Certainly there were enough speeches about who Time Lords could be friends with over the last season (even if that is a feint). Hoping Moffat doesn’t pay for his surprise by blowing his final season by losing track of the heart of the Doctor. We shall see…

The Doctor Falls
And if the last titled show wasn’t enough, this makes it clear from the outset what is coming. And yet it wasn’t. I’ll come back to that. First I do want to say it was nice to see The Pilot come back, even if making her a Deus Ex Machina to save Bill was cheap and not provided enough foundation…and they’ve set up the Doctor to have a similar possibility. The rest of the episode, however, was so rushed.

We start again with a tease (different to the previous episode), loop back, and ultimately find ourselves unsatisfied and without an ending. There is no basis for Capaldi’s wonderful speech of “not wanting to change anymore.” The Masters, though they have a fun confrontation, don’t resolve Missy’s plot-line nor her redemption. The final moments of the Hartnell look-alike are just painful. And I’m pretty damned sure that the evolution of the Cybermen and the storyline violate galactic history as we know it.

Basically, it was a confused mess, even if it had some nice moments. You can’t keep teasing an audience with a regeneration and then not deliver. It is bad entertainment and breaks the contract. Now it seems we have to wait for the Holiday episode to see what and (W)ho happens next, which is a change as well. The holiday was usually used to bridge the series and, when needed, the new Doctors. I can’t say I felt fulfilled by this finale, but I will be glad to be quit of Moffat next year. He has never understood how to run an uber-arc in a story, even if his individual scripts can be quite good. And now he has really ticked me off and lost the last of my trust.

Doctor Who

Okja

I have to say, I was glad I had a meatless dinner before seeing this movie, and I suggest you do the same. Like his previous Snowpiercer, Joon-ho Bong has written and directed another ecological warning, and done so with style and a critical eye on both sides of the conversation. In many ways it is the perfect melding of Snowpiercer and his previous The Host. Okja is one part Disney animal adventure, one part E.T., and one part Delicatessen.

Unlike Snowpiercer, however, Okja takes place pretty much in our world, with a mild twist, which makes it all the more disturbing when it wants to be. It follows a young girl, Seo-Hyun Ahn, as she fights for her friend with a bit of outside help from Paul Dano (Swiss Army Man), Steven Yeun (I, Origins), Lily Collins (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones), and others.

Driving the plot, Tilda Swinton (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) creates another unusual character, but not one as outlandish as some of her previous roles. Her twins are just this side of normal, though clearly at the edge of sane behavior. On the other hand, Jake Gyllenhaal (Life) creates a broken ex-star struggling with his choice of survival. It isn’t his most compelling turn, though it is an hysterical send-up of Geraldo Rivera. There is also the irrepressible Shirley Henderson (Bridget Jones’s Baby) as Swinton’s assistant trying to tread water in an ever-changing environment.

The movie is full of fun and adventure, but it pulls no punches about its targets. It is also willing to beat up its leads with a bit more realism than you may be used to for a film with a child lead. You are never quite allowed to just sit and relax, but the messages are all buried in the story. By the climax, which hits hard and unapologetically, you are on board and seriously considering what to do about it all in your own life. The story even continues to unspool through the final moments and one bit after the credits, but it doesn’t provide any easy answers.

Okja was every bit worth the wait. Beautifully filmed, it will deliver on small or large screen, but finding it on the large screen is unlikely. So tuck in with Netflix and enjoy this newest Joon-ho Bong adventure.

Okja

Wonder Woman

Ok, yes, this is the best DC has done since The Dark Knight. There a story with shape and a kick-ass XX chromosome in the lead and behind the camera. It definitely exceeded my expectations that were weighed down by years of DC misfires and almost-rights, like Suicide Squad.

That said, it ain’t perfect. The script is still a bit too dour and it treats the audience like idiots at times (seriously obvious stuff they pretend are big reveals). Given Hienberg’s previous credits, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised on that point. But the result is something that only passes the Bechdel test on a technicality, from my point of view (in the beginning there are no men on the island). I bring up the test because the film, frankly, wouldn’t work without Chris Pine (Hell or High Water); his character, sense of humor, and his charisma. Gal Gadot (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) is pretty, but honestly she doesn’t have the same level of magnetism nor more than few inches of depth of emotion to share.

There are a host of supporting characters that have great fun: David Thewlis (Anomalisa), Danny Huston (Paranoid), Elena Anaya (The Skin I Live In),  and Saïd Taghmaoui (American Hustle) chief among the cast. There are also some smaller roles worth noting: Lucy Davis (Shaun of the Dead), Robin Wright (Everest), and Ewan Bremner (Poet in New York) who each have some nice moments.

An interesting insight came from my movie partner (a woman) who likened the whole thing to The Fifth Element in basic storyline. I like the idea of that and see what was likely intended, but here I diverge from her in agreement. I don’t think that is what I saw on screen because of the inclusion of a single scene that blurs the personal v. universal love drive. And I have to shut up at this point to avoid spoilers. But I discuss this and other points here.

Here was the most telling aspect for me. When I left Captain America: The First Avenger, a movie I really had little interest in, I was soaring and laughing and sad and ready for more. When I left Wonder Woman, I was entertained, but it wasn’t sticking with me on an artistic or pure popcorn level and honestly didn’t care if I saw another Wonder Woman storyline outside of the Justice League. I could be swayed, but I’m not chomping to see what comes next.

Interestingly, they’ve recast the Wonder Woman story by dropping it back to WWI from WWII, I suspect to give some distance from Captain America, whose echos are hard to shake given the war-time venue. It is a jarring change if you don’t immediately recognize the outfits, however.

I love strong female characters, but what I love more is great scripts and movies and this just wasn’t that. It was the best DC has had to offer in a long time though, and I am glad young girls have an icon to look up to, both in Wonder Woman and director Patty Jenkins (Monster), but as a movie it could have been crisper and so much more.

Wonder Woman

The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo)

Between making Mimic and Hellboy, Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak) co-wrote and directed this creepy piece of horror in a 1930s Spanish orphanage. It is loaded with trademark elements of del Toro (underground venues, visually disturbing images, odd characters). Backbone sits somewhere between classic and modern horror films in its approach. It is much more loaded with suspense than gore, but it also tackles subjects that are disturbingly human. The visual metaphor of the unexploded bomb is also a fascinating bit of understated drama and comment.

The Criterion disc is filled with extras. Perhaps the most intriguing bit of information was the guidance from del Toro that Backbone was intended as a companion piece for Pan’s Labyrinth.  There is a certain visual synergy between the two, though the later film was so strongly influenced by his Hellboy efforts that it is leaps ahead in the production design. But the essentials of the effects of war on children remain a constant.

If you’re looking for a del Toro you’ve missed or are in need of a quieter form of horror in counterpoint to most of what’s out there now, this could fill the bill.  It isn’t his best, or even his most entertaining from that time period, but it is solid and, with Pan’s an interesting set of commentaries.

The Devil