Captain Marvel continues Marvel’s excellent reinvigoration of space opera

As usual, I’m behind the conversation; over Avengers: Endgame‘s opening weekend, I went to see Captain Marvel. I had no particular interest in seeing it, but it was the end point of a leisurely walk along the White River and through downtown on a personal day. I don’t get particularly excited about Marvel movies anymore, and I have minimal familiarity with the Captain Marvel character. The trailers didn’t do anything for me, either. But this film was a surprising joy for me, and I’m glad I saw it.

There are many things to like about Captain Marvel. I like its refreshingly pure-hearted and good-willed protagonist as portrayed by Brie Larson. I like the introduction story here, less an origin (though it contains that, in flashbacks) and more a recognition of one’s true capability and the overturning of years of built-in cultural indoctrination. I liked the appearance of young(ish) agents Coulson and Fury. I liked the sci-fi story, and I liked the big twist, and I liked how it wasn’t just a big twist but actually helped with Carol Danvers’s character growth and full acceptance of her new, heroic, independent identity. I even liked how the potential display of how Fury lost his eye becomes a running gag and ultimately a solidly landed brick joke.

I especially liked that Captain Marvel leaned into being its own thing. Set in the nineties, with a hero character unfamiliar to the existing superhero community of Infinity War and with events that couldn’t have an obvious impact on the state of the world (because why wouldn’t we know about it already?), Captain Marvel seemed like it would be an exceedingly unnecessary and pointless film in a franchise already full of such unnecessary productions. But while Captain Marvel does actually have some nice connective tissue to the Avengers films and draws a direct path to Endgame, it largely succeeds because it focuses on big a good movie instead of another tangle in the web of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, the connections were there, but you could go into this fresh and enjoy a great superhero sci-fi story.

The sci-fi elements were especially fun, and I hope that this serves as a sign that Marvel will continue to incorporate more and more wild space opera into its films. We saw the faintest glimmer of what was to come in the original Thor, but Captain Marvel feels like a sibling of Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok in being so wildly, ridiculously over-the-top in its depiction of galaxy-spanning empires and alien cultures. It also feels like a movie that has spiritual roots in the eighties or nineties, with the premise of an Earth-born human hero clandestinely becoming entangled in an intergalactic conflict echoing Flash Gordon or The Last Starfighter.

I hope that Marvel continues to release wild, wacky, cosmic epics. I’d love to see a sequel to Captain Marvel that details her adventures taking down the Kree empire. But I also hope that we can see some other, original, high-quality space opera films come out. It’s a rare treat, and the plots are often a little half-baked, but I love the colossal scale and alien settings, and when these things have the budget for a decent cinematic experience, it’s truly wonderful.

Review: Ahsoka

Ahsoka (Star Wars)Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ahsoka is a satisfying bridge tale that connects the dots in Ahsoka’s life between where we left her at the end of the Clone Wars and where we found her in Rebels. It’s also a pretty decent character study of Ahsoka, and I felt like the spirit of the character was really captured. For that matter, what time we have with Bail Organa is a real treat, as Johnston has portrayed him as charming, calculating, maybe a little exhausted, and compassionate yet wary. He felt pitch-perfect to me.

The story itself is a fine adventure that introduces us to elements from Rebels like the Inquisitors and the nascent Rebel Alliance. We also get a fair amount of completely new characters, planets, and ideas that continue to make that galaxy far, far away feel like a very real and very big place. I rather liked most of the new characters as well, from the farmers of Raada to the Fardis smuggling family. By the novel’s conclusion, I shipped Ahsoka and her new farmer friend Kaeden, for what that’s worth.

By the way, on finishing, I did go back and re-read Johnston and Ashley Eckstein’s “By Whatever Sun” in From A Certain Point Of View, and I found that I enjoyed the story much more this time around. It’s a rather satisfying epilogue to the story of Kaeden and Miara.

I obviously didn’t race through this book, but I enjoyed reading it, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Ahsoka or the Filoni animated shows.

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Christopher Robin

I didn’t really intend to watch Christopher Robin. I don’t have kids, and I don’t have much patience for Disney’s endless parade of live-action remakes of animated films (making a worse product, but selling it as “more mature,” and relying on nostalgic imagery in trailers, is some of the most disgustingly crass marketing to Millenials I’ve seen–and I played the Let’s Go, Pikachu! game for dozens of hours, so I know Millenial pandering when I see it).

Netflix kept promoting it, though, and I decided to just put it on in the background while my wife would be out, and almost immediately I became deeply enthralled by and enraptured with it.

It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s so easy to look past the imperfections when there is so much whimsy and charm and heart. And it’s important to note that it’s not a remake but a reinterpetation and continuation of Winnie the Pooh. In that regard, the film is rather like Hook, a film with its own original story that served as a sequel to Peter Pan. In fact, the films have similar narratives and themes, as key figures of classic children’s literature, who have since become world-weary, unhappy, middle-aged men, rediscover childhood wonder and fun just in time to reaffirm what is truly valuable in life and to reconnect with family. I liked Hook as a child, and I find that I liked Christopher Robin even more as an adult. But I know that Hook didn’t have the most positive reception, and I suspect that Christopher Robin is also a movie where appreciation will hinge especially on subjective, emotional responses, and receptivity could vary widely.

As a child, I loved the Milne stories and the animated Pooh as voiced by Jim Cummings. So while I never thought I’d watch a movie like this as an adult, while I saw it as a suspect addition to the live-action remake trend, it did not take much for me to fall overwhelmingly in love. And with an excellent cast spearheaded by Ewan McGregor and the voice talents of Cummings, the emotional soul of the movie is palpable. Let’s just say, I cried many times and for many reasons while watching this movie.

Christopher Robin was a movie tailored to my demographic, and it resonated with me, and it had a universal message with enough emotional weight to say something about my own life and about growing up and adulthood. I might add this to the rotation of films I return to, especially when I’m going through a hard time. Discovering this film this week meant a lot to me.

It’s fine by me if you can’t buy into it, if you see the film itself as a cheap appeal to Millenials and their pocketbooks. But anyone with a little of their child-self left, or anyone with children of their own, should hopefully find room to be touched by this charming little movie about a charming little bear and his best friend.

Back to Star Wars, Hard

The true Star Wars faithful gathered for Celebration in Chicago over this weekend. I was not one of them. Yet the trailer for The Rise of Skywalker was enough to light the fire in my heart once more. It never really goes it. Sometimes, it settles to embers, but there’s always been something to reignite it.

So while I was not in Chicago, I still had a weekend that was overly devoted to Star Wars. After seeing the trailer at work on Friday, I struggled to stay focused on anything other than Star Wars, and I watched Return of the Jedi when I got home (between the second Death Star and Palpatine, it was Episode VI that the new trailer most put into my mind). I’d already been reading the Ahsoka novel, so I read some more of that. I dived back into Battlefront II and Empire at War. And now I’m writing a post about Star Wars again.

That trailer looks so good to me! There are so many mysteries, and I’m eager to see it. Experience has shown that I’m more excited for new saga films over anything else in the franchise, and the trailers for these movies are always great. Each time, it takes at least the first teaser to get me to finally acknowledge how excited I am. I’d actually been saying last week or so that I felt like The Last Jedi felt like a fair conclusion to the sequel trilogy and would have been an acceptable place to end the saga, so while I was curious to see what they’d do, I didn’t feel like anything was missing or unjustifiably incomplete. Now, though, there are so many tantalizing details, and I’m really eager to see what kind of story is being told here!

The other Star Wars announcements mattered less to me, as usual. I’ll probably get to much, though not all, of the new stuff eventually. The Jedi: Fallen Order game looks disappointing to me. I think there are already enough stories about Jedi on the run during the Dark Times, and the trailer felt very much so like a Light Side version of The Force Unleashed, a game I didn’t really get into at the time. And the protagonist appears to be another bland white dude. That all said, I’m sort of starved for a narrative-focused Star Wars game, and while I’d prefer an RPG, I’ll take this! Which means…maybe I’ll be looking into another console sooner than I thought? I love the Switch and Switch games, but it’d be nice to play more of the Star Wars games coming out. If I do get another console, it’ll probably be a PS4. I’m more interested in the exclusive titles available there versus the Xbox One.

Oh, speaking of Star Wars RPGs, VG247 had an article about Obsidian Entertainment’s planned plot for Knights of the Old Republic III. I really wish that game had happened. The Old Republic was reasonably fun, but I’ve never cared for MMOs and have always preferred single-player experiences. A mark in Fallen Order‘s favor is that Chris Avellone, formerly Obsidian writer for games like KOTOR II, is one of the writers for this new game.

Last thing I want to get to: I played a shocking amount of Empire at War this weekend and finally beat the Rebellion campaign. Yes, it was on Easy, but now I can mark both of the main campaign modes on my list of completed adventures (it was years ago, but I’m pretty sure I won the Empire campaign on Easy too). I mostly had fun, and I just pushed through the point I normally get burnt out. The gameplay just doesn’t mesh with the Rebellion-on-the-run feel that the setting, and the game’s story, establishes. But I’ve complained about that before. (Although I could complain now about some story issues I had, mostly related to the larger continuity. Just for instance, this came out after Revenge of the Sith and benefited from the expanded lore and setting of that film, but it didn’t include Bail Organa in the formative rebellion in any substantial way, and it had Captain Antilles affiliated with Mon Mothma instead of Bail for some reason, switching over to the Tantive IV only towards the end of the game.)

There is, however, something very interesting thing that the game did: after Alderaan’s destruction, the Death Star immediately set course for Yavin IV. I barely got Mon Mothma out in time. I defeated the Death Star’s support fleet, but with no Red Squadron, I still lost the moon. The Death Star then destroyed Wayland (a planet I’d conquered after the early story mission, because why not, and which I successfully defended from a later invasion attempt). Finally, Han showed back up with Luke and the droids, and I could send a sizable fleet to win the battle and leave the Death Star’s destruction to Luke. That final fight played out in the stellar wreckage of Wayland. There are three reasons why I like those developments:

  1. Everything happening is so sudden, shocking, and unpredictable. It puts you in the mindset of the fledgling Rebel Alliance as it faces potential devastation, with no obvious way out. I expected Luke to show up, I expected a warning before the Alderaan destruction cinematic, I expected the game to be predictable and give me time like it had at every other stage. I couldn’t rely on convention or the film’s narrative. It made me feel a little anxious and desperate, then really relieved when Luke finally showed up.
  2. It clearly established this narrative as an Alternate Universe. Sure, this was before the canon reset, but the implication up until that point is that we might have been playing a game that was supposed to be telling a definitive story of the Rebellion. Even if we had to ignore the gameplay and the narrative-defying conquest of the galaxy in the name of the Rebels, the core story being told could be seen as “truth.” The ending relaxes those rules and says, no, this is just a fun story, hope you enjoyed playing with the toys. Any galactic conquest mode to follow is more playing in the sandbox, no more or less “true.”
  3. It actually disrupted the conquest-focused gameplay and returned the emphasis to Rebels barely staying a step ahead of an over-powerful Empire. Too bad the rest of the game isn’t like that…

That’s more than enough about that game, but before I drop the subject entirely, let me quickly show you a story in four images:

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Now, will I ever play the Forces of Corruption campaign? Maybe. More unlikely things have happened (like finishing the Rebellion campaign), and my Star Wars appetite is currently insatiable and probably will remain so through December!

Review: The Highwaymen

I like gangster films, 1930’s period pieces, and buddy cop movies, so I was bound to love Netflix’s The Highwaymen, starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as two retired Texas Rangers brought back for one final job in the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a western set in the era of Ford cars and Tommy guns. It’s a cool premise with a solid execution.

I was actually startled by how desolate Harrelson was in this film. The trailer made Harrelson’s Maney Gault seem like a sort of whimsical partner to Costner, but he plays a truly broken, haunted man, someone with a history of alcoholism to escape the memories of self-inflicted traumas, someone who feels worthless to everyone, including his own family. He clings with almost dog-like loyalty to his former superior, desperate to do something right in his final days, even if he’s not sure he can live with the consequences of their ultimate martial task. In contrast, Costner’s former Ranger Captain Frank Hamer has found a loving wife and comfortable life, marrying into wealth. Yet while he is the more stoic of the two cowboy enforcers, Hamer is very obviously suppressing his own guilt and pain.

(By the way, does it seem like there are more and more movies about older, more vulnerable men confronting–or running from–their violent legacies? Logan and The Last Jedi certainly show the trend’s alive in recent pop blockbuster films, but they seem to be everywhere, and action movies and westerns are no exception. I found a 2013 essay musing on the old-man-action-hero subgenre, but I’d say that it’s continued to evolve, with more of an emphasis on the failing powers of an older generation, rather than simply the stories of older tough guys who can still take and throw a punch better than any of the younger whippersnappers.)

Writer John Fusco and director John Lee Hancock assembled a fantastic story here. I loved that the focus was almost entirely on the law enforcement pursuit, and the depiction of Bonnie and Clyde is largely via case files, news reports, and public adoration of the distorted, larger-than-life image that the couple held. While there are snippets of the criminal duo in tense scenes of highway murders, the most we see of a Parker or a Barrow is in one mesmerizing sequence shared between Hamer and Clyde’s mechanic father (played by William Sadler). That said, the film presents a curious mingling of fact and fiction that offers itself more as a thoughtful and melancholy story about two men who have lived on past their fading into myth, rather than as a literal representation of the principals involved.

While there is a lot of dramatic embellishment, the portrayal of “Ma” Ferguson was especially hard to reconcile with reality, despite the occasional allusions to corruption allegations in the film. Still, Kathy Bates is a delight as the Governor of Texas in every scene in which she appears.

Just a couple more notes, as usual focusing on what’s obvious to me (which of course means neglecting many of the creative and practical elements of the film that made it enjoyable to me as a whole). While this is a movie that often allows scenes to rest on ambient sound, the high-energy fiddling score by Thomas Newman feels perfect. Additionally, I enjoyed John Schwartzman’s cinematography; the scenery is at turns achingly beautiful and hauntingly desolate, as the lawmen pursue the outlaw lovers over sizzling roadways and through dust fields, lying in wait in Dallas exurb slums and along pine-forested Louisiana back country.

While this film isn’t covering revolutionary new ground, it tells a solid cops-and-robbers story that finds time to reflect on legacy and reputation. It’s worth your time.

Review: Amores Perros

Several months back, another blogger recommended the film Amores Perros to me. A few weeks back, I got around to watching it. It was compelling, gritty, disturbing, and layered. Finally, I’m getting around to writing up some of my impressions.

Amores Perros (2000) is a Mexican crime drama written by Guillermo Arriaga and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. I didn’t recognize the name, but I really should have. Most critically for me, he directed The Revenant, which was a tremendously raw and powerful movie and contained perhaps my favorite performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. Looking over Iñárritu’s directorial filmography is a laundry list of films I’ve, well, been meaning to get around to seeing…movies like 21 GramsBabel, and Birdman. (And yet I’m spending my free time re-watching Bond films…)

While Iñárritu’s other movies must currently remain on my ever-growing pile of Things to Watch, I’m glad that I’ve finally viewed Amores Perros. The film fascinatingly weaves together three separate stories: an aimless young man gets involved in the dog-fighting scene in an attempt to earn enough money to run away with his abusive brother’s wife; a successful middle-aged man leaves his family for an attractive model who is subsequently in a crash that leaves her severely injured; and an ex-con, vagabond, former guerrilla and current assassin grows disillusioned with his contract killing. The crash that injures the model is a central event connecting all the stories, but characters and events overlap between all three. Time roughly moves forward between each story, but even here there is overlap between the partitions. The title makes further connective tissue apparent: dogs factor into all the stories in key ways, and all the stories involve complicated relationships and broken loves.

Each of the stories is rather bleak, and turning points where one might find hope often dead-end or switch back to further tragedy. To say that the film is morally ambiguous does not feel quite right. Perhaps more accurately, Amores Perros showcases how people can make bad choices out of a good motivation, or how people who have lived lives of evil can rationalize their decisions–or can finally seek some form of redemption. “Redemption” is more of a spiritual concept, finding the desire to do better, or to find some contentment in life; we don’t really get any happy reunions or neat resolutions.

Amores Perros also offers a grim, hard-edged look at poverty, inequality, and crime in Mexico City. The setting feels real and authentic. Suffering and despair are saturated into everything within frame.

It was a hard watch at times, but I am grateful for the viewing experience. If you haven’t seen it, I’d certainly recommend it. Amores Perros is currently available for free, with limited advertising interruptions, on Vudu.

Review: Love, Death & Robots

I did not like Love, Death & Robots, but I’m glad that it exists. It’s incredibly genre stuff: scif-fi, horror, and fantasy. Some of the stories do interesting things and take risks. A lot of the stories seem to delight in the chance to be included in an “NSFW anthology,” leaning into gore, grotesque violence, graphic sex, and sometimes a combination of the three. Most of the stories are dark and despairing and macabre. Most were vulgar and crude and unpleasant. A few were not these things, and seem to have been included because of their ideas or their humor or their style rather than sheer edginess alone, and I liked these few best.

My favorite thing about the anthology as a whole was that each short film in the anthology was so different. Some were mostly live action, some were puppetry and/or stop-motion (or else convincing CG-based facsimiles), some were CGI animation (with some of the films within that category appearing hyper-realistic), some were apparently traditional animation, and one was a seemingly live-action film filtered with an over-saturated and cartoonish look and punctuated by text sound effects (this last one was the most visually arresting, but the story was a fairly bland time loop narrative with violence and hyper-sexuality). The drastic shifts between styles kept each new film fresh and distinct.

With 18 episodes averaging about 10 minutes each, it’s incredibly easy to binge the roughly 3-hour affair (even though the episodes range in length, they’re all still rather short). I know that I did. At some point, though, it became about finishing, wanting to put the show behind me. The amount of bad outnumbered the good.

I had my favorites. “Three Robots” follows, well, three robots who are touring a post-apocalyptic city; it’s funny and cute. “Suits” feels a bit like StarCraft fan fiction in the best possible way–it’s about farmers living normal lives except for the mech suits they must use to fight off Zerg-like aliens. “When the Yogurt Took Over” is just plain silly, and it’s one of the rare nonviolent stories in the bunch, serving as sort of a ’50s B-movie deconstruction with charming animation and a Vincent Price sound-alike narrator. “Lucky 13” feels like something set in the Halo ‘verse, but it’s essentially the story of a pilot’s bond with her craft, and it’s rather sweet. “Zima Blue” is an interesting sci-fi art story with a fun twist. And “Ice Age” is a whimsical story about a young couple who discover the old fridge in their new apartment contains its own lost civilization.

References and homages to other stories abound. In addition to the references I noted above, some of the stories felt like they were fan fics for Mass EffectDoom, a variety of werewolf stories of all things, ’80s toy-tie-in cartoons, and Pokémon (but with considerably more sex, violence, and gore, and set in a hard dystopian-cyberpunk setting). Fan fiction initially feels like the right term; they’re not officially licensed to play in those worlds, but the stories seem to work best when contemplating the universes and ideas they’re riffing off. To be fair, much of the source material for these short films outright predates the sources I’m pointing to; my lack of familiarity with most of the original short stories leaves me ill-equipped to say how much is contained in the originals and how much actually could be drawing from later sources. Sci-fi and fantasy are rather self-referential genres, after all, and the round of properties I’ve named are of course referencing dozens of other stories in turn. So to be more accurate: the anthology is a send-up of genre pulp of the past few decades. There are very few ideas that feel truly original or fresh–or even complete, without the context of the genres that they reside within.

While I won’t break down all the stories, I do have to point out that many of the shorts would have simply been easier to get through if they could have shown some restraint, focusing more on telling a consistent and notable story rather than focusing on maiming and killing. Just for example, consider “Sucker of Souls” and “Good Hunting.”

“Sucker of Souls” was incredibly gory and violent, which was a turn-off for me, but it felt a lot like a mature spin on Jonny Quest or something similar, spliced with a Castlevania-esque Dracula story, and it was just plain funny even amid the bloodshed; still, that relentless violence and blood splatter, and the ultimately futile ending, makes it hard to recommend as a comedy or parody. “Good Hunting” is The Witcher meets wuxia meets steampunk, but the grotesque violence against women and moral blackness of the setting (and a sociopathic, morbidly obese man’s tiny flopping dick) are hard marks against it for me; the setting was interesting but the story it wanted to tell was not what I wanted to see. I cannot overemphasize how much graphic violence there is in this collection–and how much of that violence is directed toward women.

Like with Black Mirror, I can appreciate the good episodes but don’t like having to wade through so much bad to get to the good. Like with Black Mirror, I feel like Love, Death & Robots is presented as an edgy, genre-pushing, radical reinvention of speculative fiction, but in the end they both feel like mere edgelord recycling of what’s come before.

That said, I hope that Love, Death & Robots can lead to more genre anthologies and more experimentation, on Netflix and other platforms.