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I’m not that big of an animation person any more, but I’ve been excited to see this movie ever since I heard the Lin-Manuel Miranda was involved in the music. And I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, though not without reservation.

In Moana, the titular character is the daughter of her village’s chieftain, so will follow in his place as chief. There’s a blight that’s spread to their island, thanks to the mischievous demigod Maui having stolen the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. Moana embarks on a journey to find Maui and make him fix his mistake, and in so doing, takes her people back out onto the open ocean.

In all honesty, the main bits of this movie I wasn’t utterly charmed by involved Maui. The character felt very off, going from egotistical trickster to suddenly having a sort of angsty backstory to… justify him being a jerk, I guess. I make no claims to know how accurate or inaccurate he is to his legends (though I get the impression after some googling that he is upsettingly inaccurate), but he came across as a very standard sort of bully boy character who eventually makes good more because the script says so than because his character development makes that much sense.

There were also things I was puzzled about, like the Kakamora–evil little animated coconuts, as far as I could tell–showing up in a rig that looked like a homage to Mad Max: Fury Road. My only guess is it was a sequence created to justify a line of toys, because it really didn’t to anything in the movie. Though I actually did find them less offensive than the random troll things in Frozen, perhaps because they still somehow made more sense.

But aside from Maui (and that’s a big aside considering he’s the main supporting character to Moana), there is so much about the movie that I loved. I loved that Moana’s story doesn’t pivot on romance, but rather a quest to discover who she is, who her people are, and to save their way of life. I loved that Moana is a gorgeous brown girl that my nieces (who are also gorgeous brown girls) got to watch saving the day. Moana is truly their princess. I loved that Moana’s grandmother is a independent and happily odd old lady, who is her granddaughter’s spiritual guide. Grandma was the MVP of the film and tied with Moana for being my favorite character.

And then there was this:

Not ashamed to admit it: this song made me cry. Not because I was sad, but because I was so awed by the sheer ingenuity and beauty of humanity. This song is about the Polynesians traveling vast distances between islands in their voyaging canoes, which is one of those historic wonders that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. And reading more about this wonder lead me to find out about the Hōkūle’a Voyaging Canoe, which is a modern recreation of those ancient voyages.

I’m not too big into animated movies any more, but this was a good one and worth watching. If you want to read a bit further about the history of the Polynesian voyages (among other things), this was a good place to start: How does the story of Moana and Maui holds up against cultural truths?

Originally published at Alex Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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Another transatlantic flight, another round of movies watched because I can’t sleep and find it utterly impossible to work on my laptop in the extremely limited space available in economy.

The Girl With All the Gifts: This movie shows the British still reign supreme in zombie cinema. And this one with a twist, where the main character isn’t a survivor, but a second generation infected girl who may be the key to the development of a vaccine for the infection—if the involved survivors can be reconciled to treating her as an object rather than a person. Weird, gorgeous, creepy, and utterly heartbreaking. Do yourself a favor and see this movie. It’s already out in the UK, and should be released in the US in February. If there’s any justice in the world, this film will get nominated for a Hugo, but I fear the confusion over release dates (2016 in the UK, 2017 in the US) and the fact that it’s not a major franchise will probably scuttle its chances.

The Secret Life of Pets: I mostly liked this for how all of the cats acted, not going to lie–particularly Max’s friend with that immortal and fundamentally cat like, “As your friend you should know I don’t care about you or your problems.” The plot, such as it was, didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense and just had the characters careening around between random bits. Glad I didn’t bother seeing it in the theater, but I’d still take this one over Frozen any day of the week. Plus, thank you for a dog movie that doesn’t involve a protracted fart joke scene.

Far From the Madding Crowd (2015): I wanted to like this, because I’m honestly a bit trash for romance stories of this sort. The problem was, I didn’t really get an impression of chemistry between any of the characters. (And I really, really didn’t get why everyone was so about Bathsheba, other than Frank wanting her money.) So it was a decent enough movie, but I just felt disappointed because I wanted more.

Edge of Winter: A thriller that could be subtitled “the dangers of toxic masculinity.” A divorced, emotionally volatile dad takes his kids out to teach them how to be men (eg: shooting a gun, making fun of each other for crying) and then escalates to outright kidnapping when he finds out that their mom and stepdad are planning to move. There’s some good acting, it’s got a deliberate and creepy buildup, and the realism of the situation really adds to it. But goddamn the score was aggravating. For example, we hear the dad tell his son, “listen to that, you can hear every little sound” in the woods as the soundtrack goes BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. Stop trying to help.

Originally published at Alex Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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Jason Bourne is in a foreign country doing things that guys do when they have manpain. He just wants to be left alone. Then a shadowy part of the US government, headed by [old white guy] decides to do something sketchy that sets up the overly convoluted B-plot and also decides that this time he is going to get Jason Bourne. [competent female character] who assisted Bourne in the previous movie, has something important to tell him. Just then a government hit squad shows up and chases Bourne and [competent female character] through [country that has been in the news recently enough that American audiences might recognize it]. Bourne is about to get away before the government spooks kill [competent female character] in front of him.

Now Jason Bourne is really peeved. Bourne embarks on a path of revenge and self-discovery in which he cleverly avoids the shadowy government agents while the familiar score by John Powell and David Buckley plays. [new competent female character], a government agent introduced slightly earlier in the movie as helping out [old white guy], gets put in charge of running the op to capture Bourne. Because gosh darnit, this time they are going to get Bourne to come in. For really reals.

Some stuff happens with the B-plot, which involves [current buzzwords such as “social media” and “privacy” or maybe “kale”]. No one really cares, because the B-plot is overly complex and poorly explained, and really just exists to get [old white guy] into a position where Bourne can foil his plot, confront him, and then shoot him.

Afterwards, Bourne finds out a little bit more about his past and gets in a fight with [agent from yet another secret government program that no one has heard of before now], who wants to murder Bourne because he has been ordered to do so and also maybe because murdering Jason Bourne sounds like a great way to spend an evening. There is an extended car chase, things blow up, and Jason Bourne limps away with his newly acquired [information about his past that is still not quite enough] while his opponent does not.

[new competent female character] attempts to contact him, and Bourne lets her know that he has been stalking her, only it’s cool instead of creepy because he’s an ex-spook rather than a sexual predator, and that he would really please like to be left alone this time. Or else. He means it.

A new remix of Moby’s Extreme Ways starts to play. Roll credits.

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Originally published at Alex Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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I made it my goal to watch and review one new movie per week, so I wouldn’t have a recurrence of the complete lack of any content I had in September and October. Of course, little did I know that my first weekend post-goal setting would be November 4 & 5, which offered up a smorgasbord of movies I could not even give less of a shit about (pack led by Jack Reacher) with a seasoning of movies I refuse to watch – let alone give any money to – on the principle of the thing. (I’m looking at yo, Dr. Strange and The Accountant.)

HBO Now came to my rescue. I have cable for internet but don’t actually have it for TV, but my household decided that each of us ponying up $5 a month was worth getting access to HBO. I wanted it for the Westworld TV show, since I watched the movie last month for my Patreon subscribers and thought it had some really interesting concepts. I’ve watched the first episode now and I’m really excited to see more. I’m going to try to find the time to write about the episodes as I go, I think.

But anyway, this week’s movie.

Vice is a super expensive resort populated by androids (in this world, called cydroids for reasons I never really figured out) who get their memories reset every 24 hours. The patrons of the resort are invited to do anything they want to the androids. And then things go haywire, when one android goes rogue.

Familiar, right? More Westworld TV show than movie, since it’s not about a theme park eating its patrons. And rather than an old west theme park, Vice is deliberately a setting that’s contemporary to the world in which it resides. The movie actually opens with two patrons doing a bank robbery – it’s pretty clearly supposed to be live action GTA, including all the violence against women. With that setting, there’s a little bit of commentary on society. The cop Roy (Thomas Jane) talks about how people practice to commit crimes in Vice and then do them in the real world, particularly violent crimes against women. And it’s explicitly stated that the resort can really do what it wants because it brings in about half the city’s tax revenue. Now there’s a societal implication that could have had some real meat on it.

But the focus instead is on the android Kelly (Ambyr Childers), who through a glitch is able to remember at least portions of her supposedly erased past, most of it involving being murdered by various guests. She escapes, and then there’s a lot of action scenes, because Vice wants its rogue android back, and Kelly, with a few others, wants to take the resort down.

When I explain the plot like that, it sounds like a decently fun movie, right? The problem is that there isn’t much to either of the main characters to care about. Roy is weirdly greasy and incredibly unappealing. I kept waiting on the reveal for his traumatic past (lost his wife, maybe?) that would tell use why he constantly looked like he’d just come off a month-long bender. It never happened. He’s a cipher, whose motivations, while explained, feel extremely thin.

Of course, he still gets better treatment in the script than Kelly. Despite the fact that her supposed gain of self awareness is the turning point of the plot, Kelly herself is functionally a football that various male characters pass around to move things forward. She gets about five seconds of apparent change from a passive to active character, development that is completely unearned by the lack of something even as simple as a goddamn montage, and entirely indicated by her  slicking her hair back and dressing in black leather. Set as it is against a backdrop of constant violence against women and a camera that is remarkably male gaze-y even for an action movie, it’s even more troubling.

If Vice had spent more time on plot and character and less time on its interminable, too-dark, and thoroughly generic gunfights, it might have been a decent film. Maybe. If it had also employed someone on the creative team actually, I don’t know, talking to a female human being for five minutes so that they would realize women are more than sexy robot lamps.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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Star Trek Beyond makes a for a good apology for the aggravating mess that was Star Trek: Into Darkness. But it fails hard at its most basic job: being a Star Trek film.

This is a trend that’s been endemic since the first new Trek film and has only gotten worse with each movie. The original Trek movies always had their special effects moments, but it was always about the thematic story (even if it was a dumb story sometimes) with the action as a seasoning rather than the point. The new movies? Action set after action set piece with a thin connective tissue of something plot-like, normally driven by a villain who would have a more understandable motivation if they were a cardboard cut-out.

And this is the thing. I don’t dislike action movies. I like big, dumb, explodey movies as much as the next person, particularly when they have a thin veneer of science fiction over them to provide rule of cool physics. But those aren’t Star Trek movies. What always made Star Trek special was its philosophical heart and that the story tried–even if it failed sometimes–to be about something bigger than just blowing shit up.

It’s that heart that’s missing from Star Trek Beyond, just like in the other movies.

Probably the best metaphor for the film is Yorktown, the nonsensical, enormous space station that’s been built on the frontier of explored and is densely populated with aliens and humans (including Sulu’s husband and daughter) for reasons that are never explained. The station itself looks like a giant snow globe with a lattice work of open air linear cities built on tubes that star ships go through. There’s free flowing water and air. Every part of the lattice has its own individual gravity. It’s an beautiful design and makes absolutely no goddamn sense as anything that was made specifically to facilitate several interminable action set pieces. It actively aggravated me.

The plot, such as it is, begins and ends at Yorktown. The Enterprise arrives there after letting us know that Jim Kirk and Spock are having individual quarter life crises. An unknown ship comes out of the giant, unexplored nebula (which is apparently full of asteroids, we see later, okay then) and asks for help. Of course the Enterprise goes, and of course it ends up being a trap and of course the Enterprise gets destroyed yet again. The big bad is a complete waste of Idris Elba’s acting talents named Krall, who wants a random MacGuffin off the Enterprise so he can complete his MacGuffin machine and finally make a fucking cup of coffee murder everyone. Because reasons. The crew, stranded on the planet, meet up with an alien named Jayla, free the rest of their people, and take off in an old Federation ship that Scotty and Jayla manage to repair, all in order to prevent Krall from killing Yorktown.

The extremely thin plot careens from set piece to set piece, contorting to come up with reasons for Kirk to ride around on a motorcycle, or have a fist fight, or for people to fly around in ships in a way that’s visually pretty but very difficult to orient in space. I got tired of the action set pieces. The movie feels longer than it actually is because it’s like okay, here’s a little plot, and now we’re going to pause to randomly run away from something.

Krall is paper-thin even as action movie villains go. Why does he have followers? Where did he get the cool swarm ships? Why does he keep dragging Uhura around and yelling her? Why does he want to destroy Yorktown? What the fuck is “here is where the frontier pushes back” supposed to even mean in the context of his character? There’s what should be a really cool reveal on him at the end, but it doesn’t really explain anything, and it’s completely unearned. There’s nothing before that to hint that there’s more, to build up to it. It’s just suddenly there, and flops because it had no scaffolding of plot holding it up. There might be more commentary to be had here, on Starfleet as a non-military organization, about soldiers being left behind by the society that once depended upon them, but as in ST:ID, any point was hopelessly muddled and underdeveloped to the point of incoherence.

I’m probably making the movie sound worse than it is, but that’s because I’m frustrated. There were some things I truly liked about the movie, and I could see where it could have been so much more if they would have just backed off on the fucking action set pieces and focused on the story. And perhaps some of the overbearing action sequences can be pinned on director Justin Lin, but I think the places where the film really shines are also a sign of his influence.

Lin is best known as the director of several of the Fast & Furious films. Which, yes, Kirk on a motorcycle. But the other major strength of that franchise is its strong ensemble cast, and in each film, everyone gets a moment to be cool. This is the first Trek movie since the reboot in which I felt that everyone in the crew really did get a chance to shine brightly–heck, I think this film did a better job giving everyone a moment than any of the older Trek films did either. Uhura particularly got to stand out even more than in ST:ID, and got to have a couple of cool moments that called on her skills as the comms officer. And when it was character moments, that’s when this movie did feel like it was Star Trek in more than name. Sulu gets to take over command again and we see in him the echo of George Takei’s Sulu in command of the Excelsior. Chekhov gets some one-on-one time with Kirk. The dryly humorous friendship between Spock and Bones gets some much-needed and long-awaited screen time. The new character, Jayla, had some great moments as well, and there’s a plot setup for her potential return, which I’m excited about.

And I’ll admit, for all I bitch about the action set pieces, I fucking loved every moment of action that was accompanied by the Beastie Boys song Sabotage. It was a clever ship battle move backed up by campily bullshit Star Trek science, and as weird as it might sound to say, in that moment it felt gloriously like Trek–but yet unique to this younger, new crew.

I’m frustrated because I want to love these movies. I’m frustrated because I care about the cast, which is still absolutely stand out. I want these films to be successful, but more than that, I want them to be successful and still Star Trek. This one has come the closest of the three, and much credit is probably due to Simon Pegg, who was one of the writers for the script and who deeply loves Star Trek in the same way I do. Star Trek Beyond proved that the reboot could finally move past cannibalizing the plots of the original, and I’m grateful for that, make no mistake. But here’s hoping it can also move beyond the soulless action effects blockbuster formula and become the franchise the cast and the fans deserve.

Notes for this film have been posted on my Patreon.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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In news that should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever spent five minutes in a room with me, I enjoyed the hell out of this movie.

Please note here, I am not going to make any claims that it is a good movie, by whatever measure of good you want to pretend is in some way objective. To me? It was fun, it was enjoyable, I want to see it again, but it certainly was not: innovative, groundbreaking, special, excellent, unexpected, exceptional, or artful. On the other hand, you have seen the original Independence Day, right? It wasn’t any of those things either, but it was hella fun and caused the consumption of mass quantities of popcorn. Considering the size of the shared popcorn bucket my friend and I consumed in ID:R, we’re right on track.

Independence Day: Resurgence takes place 20 years after the first invasion. Humanity has recovered, the world’s basically become multinational and peaceful thanks to humans having something bigger to worry about killing than each other, and alien technology has been incorporated fully into this alternate 2016. On the anniversary celebration of humanity’s epic win, people who were psychically exposed to the aliens (like Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore, prematurely aged by the experience) are Having A Bad Feeling About This. The aliens show back up in an even more ridiculously enormous ship that has even less of a passing relationship with physics as we know it, and decide to drill to Earth’s nougatty center because reasons. It’s up to the old and new generations to fight impossible odds and save the Earth again, though this time there might be some mysterious help that I won’t describe further because it’s a bit of a spoiler.

There were a few things here that were a bit stupid even for me, which had me rolling my eyes at the movie rather than grinning along with the fun dumbness of it–namely the 3000-mile-wide alien mothership (for reference, that gives is a bigger diameter than the Moon) that has its own personal gravity field when it’s convenient for the purposes of special effects and then doesn’t every other time. If nothing else, even if it’s got a larger diameter than the Moon, it’s not spherical, so I have a hard time believing that it actually out-masses the moon; beyond that, the Earth is still a hell of a lot bigger. And while I don’t come to movies like this for the science–GOODNESS NO–that was a bit too dumb even for my popcorn-addled brain. Particularly when the disaster special effects that it’s used to explain really are a bit to the boring side. At some point, the thing you’re attempting to blow up is just too big and impersonal and it looks like you’re throwing a box of tinkertoys up in the air. The whole “drilling to the Earth’s core” thing was also derisive snort-worthy, particularly when they had to find a melodramatic way to ratchet up the ticking clock even more. Then again, basically any alien invasion movie that works under the assumption that the aliens are after some kind of resource we have (most often water) that they can suck away and leave Earth a lifeless husk really shows laziness on the part of the writers; either they don’t know that any resource of that nature on Earth can be found more easily and more abundantly by harvesting asteroids and comets, or they just don’t care.

That said? I loved pretty much everything else. Many of the beats in this film mirrored ID4; fair enough since they are both alien invasion films and big budget action tentpoles, which means there will be certain required beats that have to be met. But those story beats are accompanied by a world that has indelibly changed in 20 years, and that keeps it from feeling like an exact retread. To me, the best part of ID:R really was the alternate 2016 imagined in the film. The alien technology incorporated into human military technology makes for some fun variation on standard alien invasion fare, because it does touch on something that so often gets ignored–of course we’d try to figure out what makes the technology tick and then incorporate the helpful bits to prepare for the next invasion. And it makes the fun point that after twenty years of prep time, humanity has really stepped up its game–while the aliens are pretty much coming at us with the same bag of tricks they had before. The film tries to address the aftermath of so much worldwide destruction in the first movie, including the large number of orphans left behind, and the effect that had on the kids who have grown up and are now taking on a fight they’ve believed might be coming for their whole lives. Even the fact that the older generation told those kids that if the fight came, they’d be ready, and they’d win again is brought in–as a moment where the older characters fight off despair and try to find a way to keep that promise. (Look at the Baby Boomers and Millenials cooperating in alternate 2016; all it took was a world-wide disaster induced by alien invasion.) I loved the world of ID:R. I loved the setup it makes as a springboard for another film that promises to be significantly different.

International cooperation is placed at the forefront. The casting is more diverse in a lot of ways than in ID4. I loved Rain Lao (Angelababy) and Patricia Whitmore (Maika Monroe) flying jet-spaceship hybrids around. Both old characters and new had great moments, the only exception being I’m still not sure what purpose Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch) really served in the narrative. Things get blown up. Aliens get punched in the face. Female fighter pilots get to be badass. American exceptionalism has been replaced by human exceptionalism, which is still cringe-worthy in context, but a vast improvement that cannot be understated. But my favorite part? The return of Dr. Okun, and I have very specific reasons for that, which I’ll explain past the spoiler wall.

At any rate, if you’re looking for dumb, explodey fun to accompany shoving popcorn into your food hole, I recommend it. I enjoyed the hell out of this movie.

Brief SPOILER discussion below

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Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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The Boss isn’t getting very good reviews. As of right now, it’s at 17% on Rotten Tomatoes. (For what it’s worth, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is only at 19% and I thought that was pulpy fantasy fun, so maybe I just have terrible taste.) But I decided to see it anyway, for exactly one reason: the cookie seller street fight scene.

I don’t know if it’s because I was a Girl Scout for years, and put in a lot of time selling cookies, but to me, that alone was worth the price of admission.

The Boss is about Michelle Darnell (Melissa McCarthy), who has made a ton of money doing nebulous business things and screwing over everyone, including her former flame Renault (Peter Dinklage). He turns her in to the FTC for insider trading and gets her thrown in white collar country club jail for five months, during which time she loses all of her assets. She emerges, deposits herself on her former assistant Claire’s (Kristen Bell) doorstep, and comes up with a new scheme quickly: selling Claire’s amazing brownies with a knock-off, capitalistic version of Girl Scouts.

This is definitely not the most well put together comedy movie I’ve ever seen. It’s got its problems with internal consistency, has some weird pacing hiccups, and at times feels like a loose collection of sketches for McCarthy to ad-lib her Michelle Darnell character. The plot at times doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, and the Michelle Darnell character arc is incredibly predictable and pat, something that feels steered by script beats rather than organically developed.

It also, I’m sorry to say, has the Lazy Trans Joke. Bleh.

On the other hand? It had a lot of really funny moments. I never really bought Claire as a character or her muddled arc, but her love interest Mike (Tyler Labine) was delightful. The interplay between Michelle and Claire’s daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson) had some great moments. And Chrystal (Eva Peterson) the resident “giant” for Darnell’s Darlings was the MVP of every scene she was in. And Renault? Fucking hilarious, I thought. And Lazy Trans Joke aside, like many of McCarthy’s movies, it showcases women being hilarious with other women in an expansive rather than self-hating way.

I’ve heard from a lot of people that Spy is superior in every way to this movie, and I’m looking forward to watching it. (Still mad that I didn’t get a chance to see it in the theater.) Hopefully it’ll be On Demand with my cable company, I just haven’t had a chance to check yet. But I’ll probably write a little post about it when I do and let everyone know they were right. As for The Boss, I’m kind of on the fence whether to recommend it or not. If you really love Melissa McCarthy and did your time in the Girl Scouts, you might find it suitably amusing, but your mileage may vary.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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As half-prequel, half-sequel to 2012’s Snow White and the HuntsmanThe Huntsman: Winter’s War pretty much nails everything that was fun about the first film (namely, the Huntsman and the Evil Queen Ravenna) and leaves behind the less arresting bits (eg: Kristen Stewart’s Snow White). If you liked the first movie, you’re going to like this one. If you didn’t, then I’d be shocked if Winter’s War changes your mind.

The beginning of the movie explains the origin of Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) and identifies the source of his deep font of manpain, Sara the Huntsman (Jessica Chastain). It also brings us a new evil queen, Ravenna’s little sister Freya (Emily Blunt), who has her own utterly tragic reasons for being evil and wearing some incredibly beautiful costumes. Freya, driven into the depths of despair by the murder of her infant daughter by her would-be husband, decides the best way to deal with all that pain is to conquer the entire north (lots of planets have a north) and take all available children so she can craft them into an army of badass, leather-jerkin-wearing super soldiers who are admonished that only chumps believe in love. Eric and Sara are among these children and as they grow up, they develop a forbidden love for each other, which Freya Does Not Take Well.

Fast forward seven years to after the events of Snow White and the Huntsman, and we find Eric once again living in the woods and apparently avoiding baths if his hair is anything to go by. He’s dragged back into the world of having to interact with other humans when he’s told that Ravenna’s mirror has gone missing, and sets off to find it before Freya does.

This movie is utterly gorgeous, far more so than the first. There’s actual color, and lots of it. The costumes that Freya and Ravenna wear alone deserve to have a shrine built to them. The story is pulpy fantasy fun, as are the action sequences. The comic relief dwarves (Nick Frost and Rob Brydon) are well overmatched by the absolutely delightful she-dwarves (Sophie Cookson and Alexandra Roach). It’s predictable in places, and a bit weirdly discontinuous with its own mythology in others (more on that later), but all in good fun.

And it’s actually a fantasy movie that manages to pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, believe it or not. Ravenna and Freya manage to have some evil queen back and forth that does not center around men. The main casting is delightfully female heavy: two male dwarves, two female dwarves, one male huntsman, one female huntsman, and two evil queens. Lovely! I was also charmed by the equal partnership between Eric and Sara–and Sara’s fierce independence as she tells Eric, “I choose for me, not for you.” She has an excellent speech about how their relationship is not determined by the man passing some test and then she has to love him. It’s a nice jab at fairy tale tropes when that normally is what it boils down to. Ravenna remains the most compelling character of the franchise, though I’m not sure I’m on board with the implicit statement that both evil queens have their magic because they have eschewed love and family for various reasons.

Winter’s War is ever so slightly less lily-white than Snow White and the Huntsman. There are non-white background actors in Freya’s kingdom, which is… something. Sope Disiru plays another of the Huntsman, Tull, who has a speaking role and feels curiously like he should be much more vital to the movie than he really is. I came out of the film wishing I knew more about him, his motivations, his relation to Sara and Eric, because he feels like he must have been pulling some narrative weight that ultimately (and disappointingly) fell to the cutting room floor. I’m also not really sure about the depiction of goblins in this fantasy land as midnight-black, savage, horned gorilla-like creatures with tar for blood.

I also could have done without the aggressively heterosexual ending, in which every male-female couple possible shows the audience that they will be getting together happily ever after, because love conquers all and saves the day if you’re straight and monogamous, I guess. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being straight, I get that it’s not a choice or anything, but do they have to flaunt it like that?

Not flawless but fun, worth a watch if you want to see Chris Hemsworth run around in leather pants and be cute. As you do.

(A few short, spoilery things below the cut.)

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Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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I was legally required to see this movie, because Tom Hiddleston. Well, and because I actually really like Hank Williams, so I was excited about a biopic for him, even if my initial reaction to the announcement was oh dear god but Hiddleston sounds so British.

Silly me.


I’m not a native of the south (and I’m also not great at accents), but Tom Hiddleston made for a convincing enough Hank Williams. More importantly, I think he did justice to the music. For example, Move It On Over (original) and Move It On Over (movie), even if it never sounded quite twangy enough. (Though how much of that is due to differing recording quality is open to question.) When I have some extra money (sob), I’ll probably see about picking up the soundtrack. It’s on the list at least.

I Saw the Light covers about eight years of Hank Williams’s life, from his marriage to Audrey in 1944 to his death in 1952. It’s a simultaneous career ascent and personal descent that ultimately kills him, and the movie’s not shy about the fact that the man had some serious substance abuse problems and was no angel. In many ways, it plays out like any other biopic of an artist tragically dead at a young age because he (or she) is pulled in too many directions at once, has no stable home life, and is enabled in the abuse of drugs by so-called friends and doctors-in-name-only.

There’s a lot to like about I Saw the Light. The principle cast–Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams, Elizabeth Olsen as Audrey Williams, Bradley Whitford as Fred Rose–all turn in excellent performances. It’s a very nicely shot movie. The sound is excellent. There’s a different tone here because the artist in question did country music rather than rock, which lends some extra interest. Country music (and its fans) don’t get a whole lot of love in film, so it’s refreshing to have a movie that seems to really get why this music speaks to people.

But–and this kills me to say this because I wanted to like this film so much more than I did–it feels like a collection of at times disconnected scenes out of a man’s life rather than a movie. The music and the good performances aren’t enough to really pull together what suffers from a fundamental problem of writing and editing.

Books and movies are obviously two very different media that approach things in very different ways, and nowhere is that more evident than in biographical film versus biographical books. Human life generally doesn’t have a discernible plot arc or an overall theme. We’re far too messy for that. Good biographies in book form not only transmit the dry facts of someone’s existence, but find a way to weave together events to show the whole person, their development, the way they touched the world, the way the world touched them. But it’s not something that’s generally going to fit ye olde three act format. And you can get away with that in a book because you have so much more time and space to build.

In a movie, you’ve got about two hours, and the need to hold someone’s attention for that entire time. Part of it is a matter of audience expectation–I go into a movie with much different expectations than I have going in to a documentary film. You expect a story out of a movie. That’s the reason biopics infamously play fast and loose with details, because reality bends to serve the art–and the art it’s serving is the story, the theme. I came out of 42 and Lincoln and Walk the Line feeling the satisfactory open and close of those stories, knowing what the director and actors were trying to say and how they felt the life of that particular person fits into the human experience both past and present.

And sadly, I Saw the Light misses out on that. I got some hints that there were dots the film was trying to connect, between the titular piece of music that makes its two appearances (the second in a heart-breaking and historically accurate way), the time or two Hank Williams talks about darkness in his music. But it failed to gel into a coherent thesis from where I sat, never quite connecting the details to the music in a satisfactory way.

I think it’s a movie that’s worth watching if you like Hank Williams. Maybe you’ll like it more than I did and it’ll work for you where it failed to work for me. I’m just sad that a movie I anticipated so much didn’t stick its landing for me.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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Hardcore Henry is a scifi action film shot entirely in first person. Unlike handheld camera movies like Blair Witch or Cloverfield, there’s never an outside look at the protagonist; we’re supposed to be literally seeing through his eyes. It feels like someone’s taken a first person shooter game and rendered it in film, which is its strength as a gimmick, but also a major weakness.

First off, if you have any problems with getting motion sick in movies that have a lot of shaky camera movements, I do not recommend this one. That’s the number one problem with the first person format here. We’re getting all the shakiness of a mounted camera, which actually works counter to the first person shooter effect because it reminds us that we’re looking through a camera, not actually experiencing the film first person.

Let me explain what I mean.

When you’re running, jumping, doing whatever as a person, you’ll notice that your vision doesn’t actually shake that much, even if you’re really pounding ground. That’s because there are a ton of physical factors, from the stabilization of your neck muscles to your inner ears to the way your brain processes the visual input that work to make what you see relatively smooth. You experience, say, some bobbing motion if you’re running, but not a lot of the vibration or shaking even if that’s literally what’s happening to you. You’re compensating for it.

This is what makes first person shooter games work. The movement you get on the screen is very smooth, with at most some up and down indicating running. (Here’s an example of gameplay from Destiny.) But you’ll notice a lot of the indicators of physical motion we get are from seeing the arms move, for example. So in a weird way, a first person shooter looks more real than something like Hardcore Henry because it more closely apes how we visually experience movement. Even if in a technical sense, Hardcore Henry is more real because it’s literally a camera that is strapped to someone.

This is something that the people who made the Doom movie really got when they shot the film’s famous first person shooter scene. (Though arguably, they made it a tad too smooth.)

Unfortunately, with Hardcore Henry, we’re spending an entire movie watching a camera get flung around rather than perceiving what’s going on in a much more stabilized way, like the character Henry would. This works against the movie, because while I’m sure a lot of the action sequences were extremely cool, I couldn’t tell what the fuck was going on in most of them. There was too much unstable movement for me to be able to track it. So it’s an interesting gimmick, but I wish it had worked better.

As far as the actual plot goes, it really does feel like standard video game setup. Hello, player, here is your cipher character that you occupy, here’s your goal (save your wife Estelle), here’s the major antagonist, here’s your contact Jimmy who will give you the various missions you need to run to level up. The fight at the end certainly felt like Epic Final Boss Battle. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some  fun stuff in there if you’re a fan of action movies and just want to see some badguys get punched. There’s also a couple little twists to be had, including the deal with Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) apparently being the master of disguise, and the denouement with Estelle.

On the other hand, I really could have done without the extended bordello scene, which highlighted the fact that other than Estelle, there really weren’t any women in the movie who weren’t gun-wielding prostitutes. (Guys, you do realize that many a non-dude-bro plays FPS games and thus might have an interest in your film, right?) And I still don’t know what the deal was with the villain, Akan, other than he just wants a private army of cyborgs because reasons. Reasons only an albino with psychic powers could possibly understand and doesn’t see fit to share with you, the viewer. Which is really another contributing factor to the FPS game feel, because let’s be honest, some of those games are pretty thin on the plot. Who needs reasons when you can grab the heavy ammo drop?

I think we’re pretty close to having a full, first person film that’s not going to make people motion sick. This just isn’t it. And here’s hoping that when that film finally comes out, we can skip the whorehouse scene.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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Hey you! Yeah you! I’m raising money for Act for Change, and in exchange I’ll drunk watch Gods of Egypt and chronicle my suffering for your enjoyment. Details here.

I don’t even do the horror thing, why do I keep watching these movies? It’s all David Annandale‘s fault, basically.

I saw this trailer for The Witch some months ago, and my immediate reaction was
Because gosh that looks scary and tense and I bet there aren’t any fart jokes. (I was right. There aren’t.) But then David started retweeting all sorts of interesting pieces about the film, about it being different and comparing it to It Follows and FINE. I got curious.

I didn’t think it was as scary as It Follows. I saw the movie with Sunil because he is a god among men, and did not actually attempt to burrow into him until about twenty minutes from the end. Which as horror movies go for me is pretty tame. No jump scares, which I appreciate. But the tension in the film was just unending once it got rolling.

Plot is simple: family gets kicked out of their Puritan village because dad doesn’t agree with the elders 100% on religion. They strike out into the wilderness to make a new home for themselves. Times are hard, and bad things keep happening, and happening, and happening, and then shit really goes sideways.

Several things were striking about this film. First off, despite the reason for the family being out by the creepy woods being religious differences, the patriarch of the family isn’t the villain; he’s religiously not any wackier than the rest of the Puritans at the time, as far as I could tell. The family is one of generally good people who make little mistakes such as lying to each other in an effort to avoid conflict, that balloon into terrible familial conflict later.

Much has been made about the historical accuracy depicted. As a non-expert, I can’t confirm or deny this, but it certainly feels like the work’s been put in to make this feel like we’re just following a 17th century Puritan family around. The language and accents took me about 10 minutes to get used to, because it was very different from modern American English. That was actually pretty cool.

The horror is played very close to the chest here, in a way I could appreciate. While it’s very clear what happened to the missing baby, much of the rest is left ambiguous. Is the rabbit we keep seeing actually a manifestation of evil, and we’re afraid because we’re seeing it through the eyes of a family that’s isolated and afraid? Nothing blatantly supernatural starts happening until very close to the end.

The film rests almost entirely on the backs of six actors, who comprise the family that’s heading for a terrible end. Everyone did excellent work, but Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays the oldest daughter Thomasin, was particularly excellent.

I don’t tend to be a fan of witch-as-monster stories; they just never sits right with me, considering the history of innocent people getting executed for witchcraft in the early modern period. In the light of day, I can’t say I feel any better about it, though in the moment I was too busy squirming in my seat to think about it over much.

A little spoiler here for the end.

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Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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Hey you! Yeah you! I’m raising money for Act for Change, and in exchange I’ll drunk watch Gods of Egypt and chronicle my suffering for your enjoyment. Details here.

I’m guessing that if you’re a big enough fan of the Coen brothers, you will convince yourself that Hail, Caesar! is a work of genius. I’m not a big enough fan to be able to do that. Setting aside the douchey stuff the Coen brothers said when questioned about the blindingly white cast of this movie, which left me annoyed enough that I felt more compelled to see Deadpool a second time on Hail, Caesar!‘s opening weekend, it’s honestly not that good of a movie.

It’s got some of the quirky fun that made O Brother, Where Art Thou? fun and worth rewatching. It just doesn’t have anything like the narrative coherence that made that movie an excellent piece of art.

Hail, Caesar! is nominally the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), in charge of Capital Pictures, and follows him through about two days while he’s trying to get principle filming finished on the titular movie. (So yeah, it’s one of those film with in a film things that can sometimes get a little too masturbatory for anyone else to enjoy.) The star of the film,  Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), gets kidnapped by communists and throws the whole thing into disarray. Then there are a lot of other side issues that Mannix is dealing with, showing how busy and stressed he is, and at the end he decides that as hard as his job is, he’s going to keep it. There is also a narrator that sounds straight out of a Biblical film, which is fun I guess, since in the fictional movie Hail, Caesar! is actually about a Roman coming to believe in Jesus Christ.

There are a lot of fun little set pieces in this, little homages to the films of the 50s and 60s, including an extended synchronized swimming sequence involving Scarlett Johanson, and a gay sailor tap-dancing revue with Channing Tatum where they sing about how there are no dames. I would have rather watched the whole “no dames” musical, since I do love me some singing and tap dancing. But these things ultimately end up feeling self-indulgent and almost all (except the tapdancing, but I love tap so much) go on long past the point of boredom. There isn’t a narrative thread that binds all of this together; the plot in this movie is damn weak. And yes, I get that perhaps this is supposed to be more of a comedic character study of Mannix, but the Coen Brothers spend so much time in the minutiae that Mannix is completely lost. I don’t care about him as a character. He’s supposed to be struggling with if he’s going to keep his job or move on to something less stressful, and there’s no room for that between the minor plot lines that he’s trying to juggle.

This doesn’t feel like a movie. It feels like a collection of index cards with “wouldn’t this be fun?” ideas that got pulled of a cork board and filmed. I enjoyed individual funny scenes because they were clever and had some fun stylistic and visual gags. I could not have given less of a crap about the whole.

And it’s not surprising that the Coen’s were jerkily defensive about their casting choices. I saw only three non-white characters in the entire film, two of whom were the staff at a Chinese Restaurant. (Yeah, they used that trope.) The third was Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio), who was absolutely cute for the few minutes she was on stage. I wish we’d seen more of her and less of her studio set-up boyfriend, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). Sunil claims he saw an African-American extra in one of the scenes too, though he was not in focus and behind another actor.

The best thing about this movie was that I got to see it with Sunil. And that has nothing to do with the movie and everything to do with, you know, Sunil. If you cannot convince Sunil to go with you (not bloody likely), ask yourself if ten minutes of Channing Tatum tapdancing are worth the price of admission.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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This movie was pretty good. You should support Act For Change and make me watch a bad movie instead so you can feast upon my sarcastic rage.

I’ve been trying to catch up on as many best picture nominees as possible for special podcast-related reasons, so I jumped at the chance of seeing this one at the Alamo Drafthouse last weekend. (I am also trying to find a showing of Creed I can watch, for potential talking shit about the nominees purposes.) Like most of the other nominees, this Isn’t My Kind Of Movie, which means it’s the sort of movie I should still watch anyway in the interest of expanding my horizons out of the genre dungeon.

Brooklyn is about an Irish immigrant with a name that’s completely unspellable without referring to IMDB (Eilis, played by Saoirse Ronan) who comes to the titular city in the 1950s, looking to make a future for herself after she can’t find decent work in Ireland. She meets and falls in love with an Italian plumber who is regrettably not named Mario or Luigi (Emory Cohen) and eventually has to decide if her home will be in America or Ireland. There’s not that much plot to it; this is more a character study built on scenes of fairly ordinary days that add up to a life.

It’s a very pretty movie, with a softness to the way everything is shot that reminds me of old photographs. I think there’s a lot of that sort of nostalgia filtering going on throughout the film; everything looks exceedingly clean, society is startlingly polite. Maybe 1950s Brooklyn had a Leave-It-to-Beaver air to it, I don’t know my history granularly enough to say. On one hand, that gives room for Eilis’s conflict to be entirely a choice between old and new lives, without any outer social distraction. (And Time magazine seems to feel it was pretty accurate in some ways.) But I felt entirely unmoored, since I didn’t find any distinct sense of history beyond the costuming to really remind me where we were.

One thing I did love about the movie, which was highlighted in my mind perhaps because I’d seen Lazer Team less then twelve hours earlier, was just how many women there were in it. It was about mothers and daughters and women helping each other make it in a new place or occasionally trying to destroy each other. Men mostly exist in the film as arm candy for the supporting characters, and while one of Eilis’s conflicts is choosing between two equally nice men, it’s secondary to her choosing if she will go back to her life in America generally, or stay in Ireland with her mother. I also loved that some female characters I expected to be quite nasty thanks to common film tropes ended up being immensely supportive of each other.

Ultimately, it’s like eating cotton candy; it fades away almost immediately but for that lingering memory of sweetness. I didn’t find it to be terribly substantial, and while I can’t say I regret watching it, not by a long shot, I’m really not sure what it’s doing up against movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, or even The Martian.

(Still to go: Spotlight and Room. And Creed because I’ve heard it sure as hell deserved a nod.)

Like what I do? Want to see the notes? There’s a Patreon for that.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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400 Days is the first theatrical release film from a company (SyFy) that’s been cranking mediocre to howlingly (we hope intentionally) funny terribad movies out onto its cable station for years. Getting in to movie theaters is a big deal, a major investment, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee a movie’s actually good, right? Let me tell you, I’d rather watch a SyFy offering any day than Transformers 4. But is this Syfy going legit, so to speak?

Imagine the wiggly hand gesture here. Yes and no. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a tough sell when we’re talking relatively small/low budget independent scifi, because we’ve seen some amazing shit in the genre recently, mostly dominated by the UK. So I’m probably a harsher judge than I could be. On the other hand, I really, really want SyFy to succeed, because I want to see more small, weird, good genre films. And SyFy’s generally got the weird part down at least. I went in to 400 Days wanting very much to like it and wanting it to succeed.

Spoiler: I was disappointed.

The movie’s got a pretty straightforward plot: A sleazy corporate dude in a suit, representing a private company that’s breaking in to space exploration, puts four astronauts in an underground bunker for a 400 day experiment to simulate a long term space voyage and ascertain the psychological effects. The simulation astronauts are named Bug (Ben Feldman), Neil (Brandon Routh), Dudebro (Dane Cook), and Emily (Caity Lotz).

(Okay, actually, according to IMDB they’re Bug, Theo, Dvorak, and Emily, but I swear to god for the first half of the film everyone sounded like they were saying Neil instead of Theo.)

Not long into the experiment, the crew loses contact with their corporate, simulated ground control. They assume it’s part of the simulation and keep going, at which point things get increasingly weird in a way that indicates the film really wants to be a psychological thriller.

The sets (and filming style) all have that faintly unreal, cardboard-y look to them that seems endemic of SyFy movies, but in this case it actually works for the film, since the crew isn’t actually in a space ship–just an underground bunker that’s been tarted up to look like one. We’re always supposed to be in doubt about what is actually real, so everything looking a bit fake does lend itself well to that. Nothing too remarkable in the filming style, standard teal and orange color grading. Sound was… all right, though I had a hard time understanding the actors now and then, which is why I was convinced for about half an hour that Theo was actually named Neil. I thought the actors turned in decent performances, though Tom Cavanagh (playing Zell, creepy survivor guy and possible cannibal) was over the top in a way that really clashed with the rest of the film leading up to him. I also had a hell of a time telling Brandon Routh (Theo) and Ben Feldman (Bug) apart.

What let 400 Days down wasn’t the acting or the direction or even the fact that Evil Co apparently buys their space ship trash cans at Target, but the script. The characters (except for Bug) were cyphers with no past and no real internal emotional life to feed what they were doing or make their decisions sensical. This could have been forgiven in scifi/horror fare where you just sit back and watch the blood spray and CGI aliens gorge themselves on livers or pituitary glands or what have you, but not when we’re supposed to actually care about the struggle of these supposed “ordinary” characters against the unseen forces that seem to manipulate them. Worse, what starts as a decently solid plot unravels completely by the end. I’d recommend not bothering with this one until you can just watch it on the Syfy channel.

Spoilers as I get a bit more detailed into the plot.

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Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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The Revenant is one of those movies where the trailer tells you everything you need to know about the fairly simple plot while still leaving you woefully unprepared for the actual film. Spoilers below, I suppose, though the plot is really not what moves any of this.

Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) have been hired by Captain Hot Ginger (Domhnall Gleeson) to guide a party of trappers from a local fort. After escaping a raid by a party of angry Arikara tribesman, the men who remain try to make it overland back to the fort. Not long into the journey, Glass gets mauled by a mother grizzly bear in the first of many downright harrowing scenes. He survives somehow, but Captain Hot Ginger is forced to leave him behind in the care of Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Bridger (Will Poulter) after the promise of monetary compensation. Fitzgerald attempts to kill Glass, murders Hawk when he tries to intercede, and throws Glass into a shallow grave–which Glass promptly crawls back out of. After that, it’s Glass surviving against increasingly squirm-inducing situations, moved by the promise of revenge.

That’s really it. There’s a parallel plot thread not revealed by the trailer, in which we find out the Arikara are pursuing Glass’s party because one of the men’s daughter, Powaqa, has been abducted by a group of white men. It turns out that she was actually taken by a group of French trappers, but one can see how the groups of incredibly racist, murderous white trappers start to blend together after a while. Glass ultimately saves Powaqa while on the path of vengeance, but this doesn’t  provide him with any sort of redemption or peace. If you want either of those things, this is not the film for you.

This isn’t a movie about the plot, though. It’s not even really a character study as such; Glass and Fitzgerald expand a little upon their pasts, but it’s a bare framework that supports their chase across the wild and a provision of basic motivation, not a deep dive into what makes either man tick. This is all about watching a man struggle and survive against impossible odds, and then…

I still don’t know how I feel about this movie, to be honest. I came out of it feeling like a small piece of my soul had died, but not in the Michael Bay sort of way. The same way after I finished watching There Will Be Blood I needed a hug from one of my cats and a large amaretto sour.

The Revenant is simultaneously sublimely beautiful and viscerally repulsive. When dirty, bleeding men aren’t trying to murder each other on screen, it could be a tourism brochure for Alberta, Canada, showcasing breathtaking natural landscapes. We get sweeping mountains and pristine snowscapes in wide and continuous shots, marred only by one man in complete isolation struggling through them. The absolute savagery with which those landscapes attempt to murder Glass is only surpassed by the brutality of the humans trying to kill each other. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu has made certain that there is nothing artful or beautiful about the violence and blood; he’s put as much work into the realism of that as the costume designer did for the accuracy of the clothing and Loren Yellowbird Sr, the Arikara tribe member who consulted for the film, put into the accuracy of the spoken Pawnee and Arikara. There is nothing glamorous about watching Glass and Fitzgerald clash with hunting knife versus hatchet; violence and survival are both depicted as uncompromisingly ugly. And if there’s any kind of relief from the horror of survival, it’s in the existence of family and the kindness of strangers, which with one exception are swiftly and wrenchingly torn away.

The sound design is fantastic and often focuses on highlighting the sound of nature, whether it’s the distinct sound of clumps of snow falling through tree branches moving water. The score is mostly low strings, sound like wind, or drums that blend in with what is happening on screen. During some of the most uncompromising scenes there’s nothing but the sound of harsh breathing; maybe it’s because in the real world we don’t get a soundtrack when mother nature or our fellow man tries to kill us.

The acting is fabulous. I don’t know what well of blood and energy Leonardo DiCaprio keeps digging in to, but despite large stretches in the middle of the film being nearly silent except for his ragged breathing, he never stops communicating forcefully just how much it sucks to be Hugh Glass. Tom Hardy makes a disturbingly banal villain motivated entirely by self interest and happy to show the audience just how he talks himself into nearly everything. Forrest Goodluck succeeds, with very few lines and a lot of emotion, in showing the complex relationship between a mixed boy and his white father and how deeply important the two are to each other.

The film is over two and a half hours long and doesn’t drag. Rather, scenes go on far longer than you would wish because Iñárritu doesn’t have any mercy for his audience. The scene in which Glass gets mauled by the grizzly bear felt like it was approximately 45 minutes long, not because it was bad or boring, but because there is only so much Leonardo DiCaprio getting shaken like a bloody ragdoll a body can handle.

I’m not sorry I saw The Revenant, but I can’t think of any circumstances under which I’d watch it again. The fact that this movie made me use “tauntaun” as a verb in my notes is not something I think I’ll ever forgive it for. But for the love of god, please give Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar before someone gets hurt.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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Whoops, I thought I’d written something about this movie already. Then I realized that I was probably thinking about the extensive discussion I had with Shaun Duke and David Annandale on the Totally Pretentious podcast. If listening to podcasts is a thing you do and you don’t mind spoilers, I definitely recommend that discussion to you. I don’t really want to rehash too much of it here, so I’m just going to hit the highlights.

A thing you should realize up front is that I don’t generally watch horror movies. I’m a wimp. I lose sleep when things are creepy and I really don’t like excessive gore. So I took one look at the trailer for this movie, and


Then Shaun hit on my only weakness and asked me if I’d like to be on the podcast episode about it. CURSE YOU, DUKE.

In all seriousness, I owe him a thank you for it. I might have lost a night of sleep over how damn creepy some of the movie was, but I’d also put this one in my top five films of this year.

It Follows is about nineteen-year-old Jay, who gets infected with a sort of sexually transmitted curse after deciding to sleep with her boyfriend. The curse is eerie: an invisible (but tangible) monster constantly walks in a straight line toward whoever has been most recently infected. It kills whoever it catches, and then starts pursuing the next person up on the chain.

The monster is incredibly well done, by the way. It can look like anyone or anything at a given time, an ability it always uses for maximum terror and emotional trauma. And its slow, implacable march brings to mind what made walking zombies terrifying in their own special way when Romero put them on film—though this monster is far scarier in that it’s obviously capable of thought. The go-to assumption is that the monster’s a metaphor for STDs, though I think it’s more specifically a metaphor for HIV. There’s some pointed pill popping by the infected boyfriend at certain points in the film, and the idea that if you keep running, you can stay ahead of the monster even if it will inevitably catch you some day. This runs in line with the new reality of HIV positive in modern America; it’s no longer an instant death sentence if you can afford or get the medication, but a long-term condition.

And of course, the way Jay gets the curse also points me toward reading it as the HIV metaphor. Her boyfriend knows full well that he’s infected, and deliberately gets in her good graces and has sex with her so he can pass it along. After they’ve had sex, he chloroforms her and she wakes up tied to a wheelchair in her underwear (one of the movies first multilevel incredibly creepy scenes) so that he can show her the monster and tell her how to survive it.

Something that really struck me about this movie and still stays with me is that, while you can’t necessarily call something with this concept sex positive, at no point did anyone ever shame Jay for deciding to have sex with her boyfriend. There’s no victim blaming that occurs; the censure is always squarely pointed at the lying shitbag boyfriend, where it belongs.

This movie was filmed in Detroit and brings up some strange juxtaposition between urban decay and the suburbs that Jay lives in, which seem caught in a weird sort of 1980s stasis. Also, the film’s score was very synth-heavy, which made it feel more like an 80s horror film. I was half-convinced that it was a story set in the 80s, except no one had scary enough hair, and all of the kids had modern cell phones, e-readers, and the like.

Maika Monroe does an amazing job as Jay, terrified and desperate and just trying to find a way to survive—with the help of her friends. And the scares in the movie? It’s mostly that slow, creeping dread of watching the monster take its damn time. It’s an implacable sort of fear, punctuated occasionally by jump scares that had me huddling in my hoodie.

Excellent movie. Watch it. You can get it on streaming from a lot of different places for $4.99. Watch it even if you’re a horror wimp like me.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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It says volumes about this movie that the praise I can give it is, it’s not as bad as you’d expect. Actually, I think it might edge a toe toward good territory, depending on the criteria you’re using to judge if something is good or not. Action sequences, explosions, a white dude with a decent jaw line wearing a black Italian wool coat and a red silk tie and shooting people? Okay.

Though taken another way, in the realm of video game movies it’s pretty fan-fucking-tastic, helped by the fact that it wasn’t directed by Uwe Boll.

Quick synopsis: 47 is an agent blah blah genetic engineering blah blah perfect assassin blah blah no emotions, designed by a guy named Litvenko (whom I kept misnaming “Vanko” in my notes because that’s how everyone said it, I swear) who then promptly disappeared because he realized designing perfect human killbots without emotions was probably a bad idea. Katia is Litvenko’s daughter and is very good at running away and hiding, and weirdly seems unsure if Litvenko is her dad or not through the first bit of the movie. John Smith (oh THAT’S creative), who is played by Sylar shows up to ostensibly rescue Katia from 47, but actually, he also wants Litvenko the human Cheshire cat who can disappear instantly. Sylar and 47 duke it out in a way that should launch 1000 pornographic fanfics if there’s any justice in the universe, 47 kidnaps Katia, and then the really interesting part of the movie starts. Because 47 reveals that Katia is an engineered super badass like him (43 iterations better than him as a matter of fact). So of course they join forces. Bullets fly and things blow up.

There are actually some things I really, really liked in this movie, enough that I’d actually be willing to watch a sequel as long as it still had 47 (Rupert Friend) and Katia (Hannah Ware) in it. The relationship between the two characters is excellent; even before the big reveal that was already spoiled by the second trailer, they were basically sniping at each other like siblings. It was a different direction than you normally see in “action dude saves woman” movies, and I loved it. See the following conversation:

Katia: What do they want?

47: More of me.

Katia: Why would anyone want more of you?

The older brother/younger sister dynamic just speaks to me on a spiritual level, okay?

I also generally liked the action sequences. They weren’t as flashy as you get in a lot of action movies, and that was all right. They actually did a good job of speaking to character, which often gets lost in the attempt to make things splashy and justify effects budgets. 47 always came across as efficient, no frills, clinical. John Smith always had his giant, insecurity-fueled hateboner for 47 on full display. So that? I appreciated.

And praise be, a movie that kept things short and to the point. 96 minutes, in, out, done. They didn’t have enough there to justify a longer running time, and they didn’t try. So even during the occasionally cringe-worthy expository sections, the movie still moved along at a brisk enough pace that I never found it boring.

On the bad side, there were some definite script-generated problems in there. Some of the bridge scenes between plot points, such as Sylar trying to convince Katia to trust him and help him find her dad, were just awful. Wooden, stilted, nonsensical. There were also scenes that felt weirdly like relics (related to scenes that have since been changed entirely or deleted) scattered around. For example? Katia’s topless swimming scene and the later shower scene. Maybe it was just supposed to be fanservice for the presumed male-dominated audience. But it felt like it was supposed to be setup for some kind of romantic interlude, which was plainly not going to happen thank you. The plot was a bit overcomplicated for what it needed to be (two layers of badguys?) with the “real” villain not introduced until very late, though apparently that’s an inherited video game problem.

Also, I don’t know what kind of drugs they whacked Ciarán Hinds on every time before they shoved him in front of the camera, but goddamn. I could not even understand half the words he gummed out of his mouth.

I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that this movie doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel-Wallace test. (It does, however, pass the sexy lamp test! Surprise!) And if you trust the setting, apparently Singapore is inhabited by a giant population of white men in suits and five Singaporean flight attendants. Also, all the cars appear to be made of brightly-colored plastic.

Hitman: Agent 47 gets a solid Meh+ from me. It’s not a bad way to spend 96 minutes if you want to just turn off your brain while you stuff the carbohydrate of your choice into your food hole. And I’m a sucker for Italian wool.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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Found this review on my thumb drive and realized that I’d never sent it anywhere or put it on my blog. So here you go, for what it’s worth. Notably less profane than my normal review style because I originally wasn’t writing it for myself.

Note: For the purposes of this review, the character Chappie will be referred to as it in the sense of being a non-human person with no intrinsic or self-identified gender, and additionally no clearly preferred pronouns. (More on the gender question later.) For this case, I beg your indulgence in not reading it as innately dehumanizing or insulting, as is often the case when applied to human persons.

Also, spoilers. Sorry, but the ending is what makes the movie worth talking about.

Much maligned by reviewers, Chappie has perhaps been judged more harshly than it deserves. It’s an incredibly imperfect film about artificial intelligence, consciousness, humanity, and family, but quietly dares to ask much larger questions than Neill Blomkamp’s previous film, Elysium.

Chappie has been compared most often to Short Circuit, a 1986 science fiction comedy movie. The basic concept is similar: robot originally intended for more martial uses gains self awareness, grapples with questions of life and death, and fights to survive against humans that are intent upon seeing to its destruction. And Chappie is pretty funny at times, though arguably not as funny as Short Circuit. But while the bones of the plot are the same, right down to the rather hyper-masculine, military-obsessed antagonist who wants to destroy the robot, the details are in many ways significantly different.

Chappie takes place in a near-future Johannesburg, where police forces have become so overwhelmed they’ve turned to buying gun-wielding, humanoid robots from a corporation called Tetravaal. Engineer Deon (Dev Patel) has designed the police robots, while his jealous rival Vincent (Hugh Jackman) pushes his expensive and far more militarized MOOSE robot. Deon is obsessed with creating true AI, though he receives no support from Tetravaal to do so. Frustrated, he steals a robot scheduled for destruction, intent on loading his AI program onto it as a test. Before he can accomplish this however, he is kidnapped by three criminals by the names of Ninja, Yolandi, and Amerika. They owe a gangster named Hippo twenty million dollars, and in order to pay him back need to hijack and armored car, a heist they believe beyond their ability unless they can force Deon to somehow remotely switch the police robots off. Deon insists he’s incapable of doing that, and instead convinces them to let him put the robot he stole together, loads on the AI program, and then Chappie is born. Due to the nature of Deon’s program, the fledgling AI starts out like a child, learning from its surroundings. The criminal gang refuses to let Deon take Chappie with him or stay, and undertake Chappie’s education themselves with only minor moral input from its creator. Yolandi eagerly takes on the role as Chappie’s mother, while Amerika acts more as an older brother and Ninja as an abusive father figure. As another wrinkle, the reason the robot was originally scheduled for destruction was that its battery had fused to the chassis, and will provide only five more days of power, thus giving Chappie a very set life expectancy. Using Chappie’s fear of death against it, Ninja ultimately convinces Chappie to help them perform the heist and trick it into doing violence with the lie that sticking a knife in someone feels good to that person, and will just make them go to sleep.

After the heist, Chappie realizes that Ninja’s promises that money would save its life were a lie, and hatches a new plan to survive. Using a neural input helmet intended to let humans remotely pilot the MOOSE, it has found a way to back up its own consciousness digitally and save it. Vincent has all the while been attempting to convince the head of Tetravaal (Signourney Weaver) to let the MOOSE loose. He uses a virus to take all of the police robots off line and then sends the MOOSE out to track down and attempt to destroy Chappie. He succeeds in killing Amerika and Yolandi, and grievously wounding Deon before Chappie and Ninja destroy the MOOSE. Chappie takes Deon back to the Tetravaal plant, exacts a non-lethal but thoroughly violent revenge on Vincent, and uses the neural input helmet to transfer the dying Deon’s consciousness into a police robot test unit. Thus saved, Deon quickly transfers Chappie into another nearby robot and then escapes.

While the setup for the plot is very ham-handed—why doesn’t Deon just lie to the criminals? how on Earth is the CEO of Tetravaal so completely short-sighted about the possibilities of true AI? why can’t they just put Chappie’s head on a different robot body? and so on—once the pieces have all been shoved to their necessary positions on the board and Chappie created, the rest unfolds well enough. Outside of Chappie, most of the characters suffer from a paucity of development, with Deon and Vincent particularly underserved. Vincent is a caricature of an antagonist; while South African, he feels like a sketched out model of toxic American masculinity, from his Christianity to his bullying to the fact that he swaggers around with a pistol on his belt. (I do not know enough about South African culture to speak to the accuracy of this caricature in that context.) At one point he even threatens Deon with the pistol, tackling him onto his desk and pressing the barrel against his cheek, and then claims that this assault was only a “joke.” Ninja, Yolandi, and Amerika (the members of the group Die Antwoord) are as far as I can tell playing caricatures of themselves, and aren’t particularly interesting for it. But the star of the movie is Chappie, and we see its progress from infancy to rebellious teenager-hood over the course of the movie.

Chappie as a character is one that a viewer will either find exceptionally endearing or extremely annoying. Well-voiced and acted in a sort of “poor-man’s motion capture” by Sharlto Copley, Chappie speaks with distinctive vocal quirks, and displays the full range of emotions one would expect from a sentient being using tone, body language, and a set of lights that stand in for eyes. The robot is lied to constantly by the humans around it, caught in a tug-of-war between Deon’s egotistical self-righteousness and Ninja’s self-conscious, bullying swagger. Much of the character’s development is seen in painful realization after realization of the lies it has been told, the cruelty and inhumanity of others, and of its own impending death. Chappie’s own emotional core is provided mostly by the inconsistently characterized Yolandi, who on one hand authors Deon’s kidnapping and is perfectly happy threatening to kill him, and on the other reads Chappie bedtime stories and assures it that it is loved despite all emotional crises. It’s the title character’s inner journey that ultimately makes the film and its incredibly rough setup worth viewing at all.

The pay-off for Chappie comes when, wanting to survive, Chappie develops a way to save its consciousness digitally. Considering the earlier discussions that Chappie has with Yolandi about the existence of souls, this is actually a bold statement to be made by writer/director Blomkamp in a time when mind-body dualism is still a hotly debated topic. And it becomes even more pointed, considering Chappie’s greatest opponent, Vincent, despises AI as soulless. That Blomkamp supposes a world in which a sentient robot is able to record the consciousness of a dying human and copy it into a robot body as the dramatic conclusion to his film deserves far more attention than it has received, no matter how much of a hot mess the first two-thirds of the movie may be. Following the ending plot stinger, he’s offering us a fictional world in which humans stand on the precipice of functional immortality, and that is heady stuff.

Another worthwhile and largely ignored question in the film—and in this case, one the director likely wasn’t so interested in asking—has to do with the question of Chappie’s gender. Robots, if sentient, are arguably beings without latent gender, wholly asexual. The robots in the film are nominally coded as male—they’re blue because they’re police robots, they have voices that sound male. But when Chappie is awakened to sentience, there is not anything obviously in its behavior that is indicative of one gender or another—it is wholly childlike. Yet immediately, a male gender is assigned to the robot by all of humans around it, including Deon. Is Deon’s knee-jerk identification of Chappie as male due to an urge to see himself in his creation, an assumption of male as a default gender, or something else? It’s a question worth asking, and one the movie never gets around to, which seems a shame.

The identification of Chappie’s gender comes not from within the character, but is imposed from without by observers who seem in general agreement that it is male, judged by behavior that is at that time purely reactive and not at all coded in one direction or another. The infant personality in the robot is skittish and exceptionally curious, and eager to please. Later we see Chappie play with the items given to it by Deon, one of which is a Barbie-esque doll that it actually styles to look like Yolandi—and then act afraid upon being caught doing so by Ninja. Is this because Chappie believes itself to be male in some way and knows it ought not play with dolls, or far more likely because Ninja has given it ample reason to fear him in general?

In fact, all of Chappie’s more masculine-coded behaviors and ways of speaking are specifically taught to it by Ninja and Amerika in order for it to seem “tougher” and convince it to be more willing to engage in violence and intimidation. With the sole exception of Deon as the token, thoughtful nerd, masculinity in this movie is generally presented as bullying and violent. And while Chappie is willing to engage in the swaggering, arguably to convince Ninja to like it the way Yolandi and Amerika do, the only way it is compelled to actually act intimidating or violent is with lies that use its desire to please its perceived parents against it. In the same way, any apparent acceptance of assigned gender on Chappie’s part seems to come entirely from a desire to please rather than out of inherent identification. Chappie’s final, knowing acceptance of violence when it enacts its revenge upon Vincent is particularly notable on these grounds.

There is an unexpected amount of meat to be found on the bones of a movie too easily dismissed in light of a comedic predecessor. Chappie is worth watching for that reason, if you can handle wading through the repetitive antics of the human caricatures—and deal with the frustration over what could have been.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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The story so far: Sixteen sadistic jerk-asses banded together and raised $843.39, thus forcing me to see 50 Shades of Grey.

I went on Saturday. I had two beers and three hurricanes in a little over two hours. I am not ashamed to admit that I got really fucked up in a way that had nothing to do with the movie. I also took notes. 14 pages of notes. I am kind stunned by how bad my handwriting gets by the end.

By the way. If you guys want all 14 pages? Pony up another $156.61 to the charities and I will hand over the scans. Want to know what you’re missing? This is page 5. Of 14. (By the way, my housemate claims that she has a video of me drunk calling one of my friends and telling her about the movie. Which goes on for something like 9 minutes. She says you can have it if you hit $1250.) After thinking it over, I decided to scan my notes after all. Enjoy.

I invite you to think about that for a moment and shed a tear for my liver.

Assholes that got thrown out of the Alamo Drafthouse while watching 50 Shades of Grey review by Rachael Acks

I sat in the theater and drank alcohol. There were people talking loudly in the back of the theater, which was very unusual, due to the fact that I was at the Alamo Drafthouse and talking is verboten. But man those plucky patrons! Going on about Dornan’s butt and oh my god the book, and did you see that, and look he has a helicopter oh my god!

I am so glad this table was in the theater, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to follow the extremely complex plot of this geopolitical thrill-ride. I would never have known, for example, that Jamie Dornan has NIPPLES. HE DOES, YOU KNOW. TWO OF THEM. RIGHT THERE. OH MY GOD. His slightly bulging right eye and pained expression invite you to look closer if you dare, but we all know you can’t handle this sort of difficult truth: the nipples are capitalism and the surging buttocks the corporatist state that is the inevitable result of the unfettered free market, which doesn’t give oral. Oral is for closers.

As Christian used one of his approximately six million grey ties (HE LIKES GREY. GREY GREY GREY THERE IS A COLOR THEME YOU POOR FOOLS DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND, GREY LIKE THE MORALITY OF OUR INCREASINGLY COMPROMISED STATE) to tie up Anastasia as a daring commentary about the tangled issues of international trade and the corporate espionage it often encourages, these fine explicators were thrown out of the theater. Realizing that they would be leaving us without their guidance, they threw their drinks glasses on the ground in despair. And apparently at some other customers, but is there anything wrong with wanting to put someone else out of their misery?

“Bitches! Fuckers!” “I can buy this movie! It’s good! FUCKERS!” were the last words of these brave souls as they were herded from the theater by the extremely large and friendly manager. It’s true, you know. We were indeed the fuckers and bitches for being stuck in the movie, now rendered completely incomprehensible without their help.

But! Every cloud has a silver lining. The fine drama of their exit was a damn sight more interesting than watching Anastasia bite her lip while I cringed at the sad mistreatment of an otherwise nice, if boring, tie. And even better, the manager came in at the end of the movie and gave us vouchers that I can spend on something that isn’t 50 Shades of Grey. As much as it tears at my heart to do so, of course. Seeing the movie just wouldn’t be the same without the interpretive commentary running in parallel.

Grade: A+, would heartily recommend again while watching a similar movie

Okay you want the actual review? Fine. See below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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Blackhat is a spy-fi movie about good hackers trying to stop bad hackers from doing nasty things to manipulate the stock market. It also involves a not inconsiderable amount of shooting and blowing things up, and eventually death via screw driver. Like most spy-fi/thriller movies, the actual details of the plot are perhaps needlessly convoluted, but things make enough sense as you are conveyed from point A to B to C that even if you can’t make sense of it a few hours later, at the time it’s not a bad ride.

To a certain extent, this movie appealed to me by just making some unexpected story and casting decisions that were entirely too charming. Of the four main characters in the movie? Nick Hathaway, played by an only muscular rather than positively Asgardian Chris Hemsworth, is the only white guy. Of the other three, we have FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), and Chinese super computer nerd siblings Chen Dawai and Chen Lien (Leehom Wang and Wei Tang respectively). The opening conceit of the film is the Chinese and Americans teaming up to stop an evil hacker, with the Chinese siblings acting as the real heart of the team instead of it all orbiting Chris Hemsworth’s muscular mass. That was definitely an unexpected turn, since the first few minutes of the movie were shot more like the Chinese might be the villains. When Nick and Lien end up sleeping together (because of course they do) Dawai doesn’t act like a macho shithead, but rather has a reasonable and adult conversation with Nick about his concerns in regards to the fact that if their mission fails, Nick goes back to prison and that would kind of suck for Lien–all without demanding dramatically that the two break up. The hackers work with command lines rather than ridiculous, fancy GUIs, and much of what they do is accomplished by just being clever bastards rather than brute forcing things. (Eg: At one point Nick gets a password by tricking someone into changing their password and using a keylogger.)

Leehom Wang and Viola Davis were the standouts of the cast; it’s refreshing to see Davis in such a different role for her and she plays it well. (Favorite line of the movie is when she looks disbelieving at Nick’s attempt to be cool and says, exasperaed,  “Chica? Do I look hispanic to you?”)

All of that? Exceedingly charming. It’s those unexpected factors that made me willing to forgive a lot of the weaknesses, and are what stand out in my mind even now when, over a week later, I couldn’t tell you what the hell most of the plot actually involved, other than noting that the romance between Nick and Lien comes out of the blue and makes about as much sense as some of the more tortured jargon. That’s perhaps the biggest problem, is that the plot has only one twist startling enough to stand out, while the rest is a little too caught up in spy novel intricacy without having quite as much driving tension as less arcane spy movies. While it’s refreshing to hit several points in a movie where you go Oh, that’s not what I expected, I can’t help but think the best definition for a movie is being able to tell you what it is as opposed to what it isn’t and then the rest being fairly unmemorable. But fun, worth watching, and and I think worth watching again to see if more of the plot sticks this time.

The fights (with a bit too much steadicam for my tastes, rendering them almost incoherent as those in the Bourne Supremacy) are short, indelicate, and brutal, which is something I’ve come to appreciate in movies that are trying to be a bit more gritty and realistic. That’s the tone the movie goes for, gritty and dark and more than a bit brooding at times, though the use of the various cities and the urban color scheme are gorgeous. More of those and less of the Tron-esque watching light track through circuit boards, which was baffling as to what it really meant to add. As for the hacking? I don’t know enough about computers any more to actually say how silly it was. But I think the most unrealistic part of the entire movie was actually a man inserting a USB drive into his computer on the first try.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.


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Tetsugawa Katsuhiro

September 2017

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